Stupid Foreign Policy = Damaged National Security

June 9, 2017–When President Donald J. Trump sashayed over to Europe on his first foreign trip, in this space we commented about the stupidity of the foreign policy. The context there primarily concerned NATO and how snubbing our great friends in the alliance was certainly not a good thing. Our coverage mentioned the fabulism involved in thinking that Israel and its Arab neighbors were moving along converging pathways. Now I want to return to the Middle East to show just how stupid all of this has been.

Let’s start with Syria. The cruise missile attack on the Russian-Syrian airbase has come and passed. As Jack Kennedy once said, it’s like taking a drink–after a while the effect wears off and you need another. Trump is there now. The U.S. is upping the ante, sending in more Special Forces for more active roles, and moving ahead with heavy arms for Syrian rebel troops. But since the target is ISIS, America is effectively ranging itself alongside the Syrian government (and against the rebels we are arming) and the Russians. This was a problem for Obama policy too–made in this space years ago now–but Trump has not solved it.

Next to Qatar. This one is all Trump. The president insists he encouraged the Saudis to act aggressively against supporters of terrorism. Saudi Arabia and a number of other locals–some of them on Trump’s travel ban list, by the way–joined together to ostracize Qatar. Now it happens that Doha, Qatar’s capital, is a main transit point for American soldiers headed for Afghanistan and a site for diplomatic contacts, with the Taliban, among others. Qatar also hosts Al Uedid, the major U.S. airbase from which the Syrian war is being conducted, as well as a sophisticated command center that wages it. Trump not only supports the Saudi initiative he went on twitter to claim credit for encouraging it. Saudi Arabia is angry at Qatar for supporting the other side in its Yemeni war. U.S. policy in that affair is completely at odds with our interests in Syria and Afghanistan.

Now Iran. The Trump-era CIA has just refashioned one of its mission centers to target Iran–with which we are supposed to be improving relations because they are keeping their side of the nuclear bargain (something the U.S. concedes). Worse, ISIS is now attacking Iran too. So, in Iran Mr. Trump now has the United States allied with ISIS?

President Trump’s grasp of American national interests is so tenuous that policy careens from pillar to post. Stupid foreign policy damages U.S. security.

[EDITOR: This piece was actually written to appear before the “update” on this website but it appears the posting instructions were entered incorrectly. Sorry!]

 

Update: Senate Torture Report

June 9, 2017–Some days are better than others. Yesterday North Carolina Senator Richard Burr seemed fairly reasonable in his questioning of James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Not long before that, Burr raised concern when he renewed earlier demands he had made that the federal executive return to the intelligence committee all copies of the SSCI report of its investigation into CIA torture and detention programs. That day was a pretty poor one.

The Obama administration took little formal action on Burr’s demand. Its Justice Department wavered on whether to declare the report a “federal record,” which would have ensured its perseveration and opened it to freedom of information requests. It ordered other agencies not to “open” their copies. The John Brennan CIA working to bury the report, interpreted that as an instruction to destroy copies in its possession. Now, under the Trump administration, Senator Burr is about to get his wish.

The publisher Melville House, which put out one of the printed editions of the executive summary of the committee study, is responding to this effort to put the report back in the secret vault by making its edition available to the public for free. Get in touch if you are interested.

Stupid = Damage : Update

June 9, 2017–The latest gem to percolate to the surface here is that President Donald J. Trump, when encouraging Saudi Arabia to bully the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar, did not know that there are 10,000 American servicemembers stationed at a Qatari airbase and command center. (Not to mention that nearby Bahrain, with its port Manama, serves as base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, our Gulf battle fleet.)

Did not know? What kind of excuse is that? It is the responsibility of the president to know these things. When making decisions affecting U.S. forces, in particular, a president does not proceed without due deliberation. The president has an entire bureaucracy behind him precisely to ensure stupidities like this do not occur. No doubt Trump would like to blame his NSC staff, but the president was shooting from the hip in his conversations with the Saudis, and never consulted them. No doubt he would like to blame the State Department, but it is Trump himself who has done his best to ensure the diplomats have nothing to do, plus empty seats and desks to do it from. And Trump himself went on twitter to claim credit for this stupidity–apparently not even knowing it was that.

On the whole this was an average Trumpian performance. Not worse than usual and definitely not better. The arrogance is only exceeded by the incompetence. No wonder America’s allies now doubt us.

 

Watergate and its “Satellites”

June 8, 2017–Everyone here is abuzz with the testimony of former FBI director James B. Comey before the Senate intelligence committee. Some pundits are saying the remarks move us further in the direction of something akin to the Watergate scandal of 1972-1974, when the presidency of Richard M. Nixon was brought down by initial criminal acts, followed with attempts to cover them up. There are some distinct differences between what happened in America in 1972 and in 2016, but here I want to focus on two kinds of similarity.

The first is the initial conspiracy. In both 1972 and 2016 the future president would be insulated from conduct of the conspiracy. In 1972 that was handled by the attorney general (interesting, huh?) with his campaign unit called CREEP (Committee to Re-Elect the President). The conspiracy was embodied in a political “intelligence” plan presented at a briefing by CREEP official G. Gordon Liddy. Aside from Nixon’s attendance at that briefing there is no direct evidence of the president’s participation in the first stage plotting. For 2016 the political organization of the conspiracy has yet to come into focus, but it involves the characters who have been discussed here. In some combination they include Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, and others. The apparent participation of candidate Donald J. Trump occurs at an April 2016 speech, where he is introduced to the Russian ambassador; and at the Republican party convention, where operatives collaborated to alter the party platform in a way that rewarded Russia, a move that required Mr. Trump’s approval.

The second element is the coverup. In both 1972 and, it now appears, 2016, presidents responded similarly to exposure of conspiratorial plotting. James Comey gave the word today for Donald Trump: in one of his conversations with the president, Mr. Trump (relieved the FBI director was telling him he was not, at that time, a subject of investigation) assured the FBI that he stood with them if they uncovered “satellites” among his campaign staff who had engaged in criminal activities. In other words, Trump stood ready to throw his minions under the bus. Richard Nixon, the same. Nixon first gave up his super-loyal chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, and counselor John D. Ehrlichman; later Mr. Mitchell; then other staff, until the harsh light of suspicion showed right in on him.

Watergate, it is always said, shows the coverup is worse than the crime. With Mr. Comey’s testimony the evidence mounts against Donald Trump. The coincidences in time between key points in the discovery of the Russian Caper and Trump’s actions (or the lack of them), the president’s efforts to get the FBI to shut down parts of its investigation (in Watergate Nixon attempted to get the CIA to shut down the FBI), the sacrifice of “satellites,” are all astonishing.

A few weeks ago a lot of people were swaggering around like lords of the manor. Today in Washington, it seems the worst possible thing is to be a “satellite.”

“Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster’s At It Again!

June 5, 2017–In case you thought I was too hard on Hal McMaster several weeks ago (“H.R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017), here’s more–he’s at it again. Remember, by the way, that “dereliction” is his word, not mine. “Dereliction” is what McMaster accused the military’s top officers of doing when, during the Vietnam war, they hesitated to express their hard-nosed visions of reality to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Today, General McMaster is doing the same, covering for our simpleton president instead of educating him. McMaster held that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict in not resigning when LBJ kept to his own course. General McMaster today is also doing the same thing for which he accused the Joint Chiefs of dereliction. The word “appropriate” is also from McMaster. In his previous sally he excused the actions of President Donald J. Trump as entirely appropriate. Hence we have “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster.

In a speech over the weekend to the “Global Forum” conference of the American Jewish Committee, General McMaster engaged in fantasy and articulated falsity. It is a fantasy to say, as “Appropriate Dereliction” did, that Israel and its Arab neighbors are on converging paths. McMaster and Trump may believe this is a moment of opportunity, but we will be unable to take advantage of any such chances if we misunderstand the national interests of the involved states and the global context which drives them. McMaster also asserted that President Trump, on a visit with NATO leaders, had reaffirmed United States support for Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which Trump did not do. Quoting Trump’s warm up before his denunciation of NATO allies as an affirmation is fake news. There is a reason why allies like Germany are running around questioning America’s steadfastness–and it’s not because Trump supports them. McMaster’s damage control effort is appropriate dereliction.

So is “Appropriate Dereliction’s” comment on Trump and the recent terrorist attack in London. Where the president is poking at British officials and using the incident as fodder for his own political goals, McMaster evades any reference to Trump’s major display and quotes merely the single statement of support the president made before misrepresenting the mayor of London. The United Kingdom is a NATO ally. How does Trump’s action square with Article 5? Appropriate dereliction again.

Seventy-three years ago today American and British troops–plus contingents from many nations that are now NATO allies, were in the middle of the English Channel, on their way to invade France, clear northwest Europe, and end World War II. The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved that mission. The architects of that operation and the postwar alliance would be aghast at the antics of “Appropriate Dereliction” McMasters.

 

The Other Coverup: CIA’s Torture Report

June 3, 2017–Now for an update on the other coverup underway in Washington. The other day I framed the CIA’s former director, John O. Brennan, as “The Flying Dutchman” (see “John Brennan: The Flying Dutchman,” May 24, 2017). Mr. Brennan received that sobriquet for his brash promises of compliance with accountability norms followed by maneuvers to avoid accountability at any cost. This was apparent when Brennan worked in the White House as Obama’s NSC director for intelligence, where he had a leading role masterminding the drone war. It became glaring when Brennan took up the reins at CIA, then in the throes of a knock down-drag out fight to prevent the Senate intelligence committee from releasing its investigative report on CIA torture. At his nomination hearings Brennan spoke positively of the investigation, the report, and forthrightly defined “torture.” Once ensconced at Langley the CIA director joined heartily in the fight against release. Like the Flying Dutchman the Brennan accountability ship disappeared into the mists.

The point a few days ago was that Brennan’s performance on torture left him up the creek when it came to trying to convince congressional overseers that the evidence he saw for a Russian Caper was real. Now the fight over the torture report has developed even more ramifications–it appears the Trump administration will use it as part of its effort to evade investigation of the Russian Caper itself. It happened this way:

When the Senate torture report emerged at the end of 2014 it became a political football in the partisan wars of Washington. Republicans hastened to picture the investigation as somehow inappropriate, even unpatriotic. The Senate changed hands in the election of that year, and Richard M. Burr (R-NC), the new chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), demanded the return to his oversight unit of all copies of the torture report. The Justice Department eventually met this demand by instructing agencies not to open their copies of the report. Nothing happened–except in Brennan’s shop where the CIA director contrived to eliminate those copies at his agency. But there were lawsuits seeking release of the SSCI report, others to convert it to a “federal” record (putting it beyond SSCI reach), requests to President Obama to release it, and court orders reserving copies for use in several cases involving terrorist detainees.

Mr. Brennan’s successor at the CIA, Mike Pompeo, previously sat as a congressman on the House intelligence committee. Like the Flying Dutchman, at his nomination hearing Pompeo promised the senators he would safeguard the torture report–and even read all 6,700 pages of it. Instead Pompeo supported Senator Burr when the SSCI chairman renewed his call for the return of the report copies.

Meanwhile at this very moment Senator Burr and his committee are mounting one of the key investigations of the Russian Caper, making President Donald J. Trump highly vulnerable. By returning copies of the SSCI torture report to the committee, Trump is doing a favor for the chairman of the unit investigating him, handing Burr a political win. President Trump also does a favor for the CIA, currying support from a rank and file who have felt threatened by the report and its revelations of CIA high handedness. For the moment it looks like Mr. Trump has scored a two-fer.

The Russia Caper–Putin Plays a Card

June 2, 2017–Vladimir Putin has played another card in the Russia Caper. As foreseen here (“How Many Cards Has Putin?” May 12, 2017), the Moscow leader has the ability to keep the pot boiling in America by letting out information from his own side on the cyber-political action against America’s 2016 election. It’s “Miss Scarlett, in the Conservatory, with the Lead Pipe”-type stuff.

Putin’s latest is that, perhaps, Russians did interfere in the U.S. elections, but that they would have been private citizens, “artists,” who got up in the morning, saw something happening, and wanted to play a part. Nothing governmental, nothing real–and he has some inmates in the FSB’s Lubyanka whom he can, in due course, trot out to put pretend substance on these assertions.

There’s been lots of talk, here and elsewhere, about whether the Russia Caper was real or not, perhaps just fevered figments of imagination. Lots of attention has gone into various American figures, inside the Trump White House and out. Some very esteemed colleagues think the charges are all hokum. But consider this, yet one more layer in this cake– the antics of Russian leader Putin and his government.

Putin has behaved all along as someone who does have a stake in play. All through 2016 Moscow’s line, like Trump’s, was there’s no there there. Mind you, cyberwar has daily been becoming a subject of more intensive global cooperation, with Washington and Moscow on the same side. But on this? No soda. The FSB’s arrests came at the end of the operational cycle, with the election done and the Trump transition underway. Putin said nothing at the time except deny his nation had had any role, and gracefully forego retaliation in late December when the U.S. government imposed certain sanctions on Russia. When the activities of Russian officials came into question–for example, with questions regarding President Trump’s leak of sensitive intelligence at a meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin offered to provide the Russian meeting record to document what was said. Not said, by Putin, is anything about the reported requests by certain Trump operatives for a communications backchannel using Russian devices, from them to Putin. There has been no comment, either, on the hacking of American political entities by adversaries traced to Russian intelligence agencies. In each of these cases of action or inaction, the path Putin has followed corresponds to how a conspirator might proceed.

To Miss Scarlett in the Conservatory let’s propose an alternative– it was Ambassador Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016.

It is time that those who wish to dismiss the reality of a Russian Caper be required to account for the Russian side of the hill, and advance explanations that would demonstrate the innocence of Putin and his minions in this affair.

Trump Foreign Policy: The Shape of Things to Come

May 29, 2017–With President Donald J. Trump completing his first overseas tour the broad outlines of what will be his foreign and national security policies are beginning to come into focus. The good news is that, when confronted with the slapdash silliness of many things that he advocated as a political candidate, President Trump often relents and retreats to a more traditional and recognizable policy stance. The bad news is that, with distressing frequency, Mr. Trump hews to the slapdash and silly. Meanwhile, he is creating a policy machinery that promises to guarantee sloppy action.

Trump’s first trip ended in chaos as he denounced longstanding NATO allies, seemed to open up to their concerns on global warming, threaten economic war with Germany, while looking askance at our friends in France. Germany too. At a beer hall a couple of days after the bullish American had left, German chancellor Angela Merkel stood up to tell the crowd that the age of alliances is at an end. President Trump was warned going into this trip, he refused to relent, and the result has been predictable.

If that leaves your head spinning, there is more–in Israel where Trump had been promising friendship–and to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (an open affront to Palestinians and Arab countries)–he suddenly reverted to a version of the old American approach of encouraging a two-state peace. In Saudi Arabia Trump went native, did the sword dance restricted to men, and looked on while Saudi royal family members made donations to Ivanka Trump’s foundation dwarfing anything for which candidate Trump lambasted the Clinton foundation in the last election.

In the Middle East Trump remained silent on human rights–a major issue in the region. Indeed, he participated in an odd séance with a lighted globe and the Saudi king and Egyptian military president, in both of whose nations human rights are threatened. Trump has recently chummed up to the Philippine president who is carrying out an active pogrom in his country. Combined with actions on the European portion of the trip, Mr. Trump cozies up to dictators while castigating democracies.

China also has a problem with human rights, and it, too, has benefitted from a Trump flip flop. Denounced consistently is Iran, which has just re-elected a moderate president and exhibits signs of improvement. There the United States has conceded the Iranians are keeping their side of a bargain on nuclear developments, and is “rewarding” that with plans for new sanctions. The ISIS enemy is also consistently condemned though there most would agree.

Trump’s line on North Korea is aggressive, matching the irrationality of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. There is no reason to suppose this approach will lead anywhere good.

Then there is the Russian Caper. Fresh revelations about Trump officials and family members and Moscow’s manipulation of U.S. politics in the 2016 election emerged almost every day during the Trump trip, and a parade of his senior officials made their way home to deal with the fallout almost every day of the tour. The latest is that the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, actually met with the Russian ambassador last December to request that he set up a Russian backchannel to afford secret communications with Moscow. The move smacks of espionage, reinforcing the impression the Russian Caper is every bit as sinister as some suspect.

Coming to the rescue, now again, is “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017, here below), who called a press briefing (from which the Trump officials fled after half an hour, and which they refused to allow cameras) to calm the waters. While refusing to comment on “Backchannel Jared” directly, the new national security adviser sought to reassure Americans, saying, of the backchannel, “No, I would not be concerned about it.” Pressed to explain, McMaster went on, “We have backchannel communications with a number of countries. So, generally speaking, about backchannel communications, what that allows you to do is to communicate in a discreet manner.” Over the weekend Homeland Security secretary John Kelly joined McMaster in dereliction, not only repeating the total BS line that a backchannel controlled by a foreign power is completely innocuous, but asserting that what Kushner did was good for the country! (Whatever Backchannel Jared thought he was up to in this gambit it had nothing to do with the country.)

Here is the kernel of thought about the administration’s new national security machinery: backchannels from the White House to substitute for front channels through the Department of State. If you wondered how the Trumpists expected to get away with gutting the State Department, reducing it by a third in the next budget, here is the answer. The foreign policy will be run directly out of the White House, relying on backchannels. The diplomats’ role will be to explain–from the outside–the rationale for whatever Trump does. Woe to everyone who has yet to master the art of the flipflop.

Meanwhile, Hal McMaster confirms why I have given him the sobriquet “Appropriate Dereliction.” Dereliction is what McMaster has accused his forebears of–the military leaders in the Vietnam war, McMaster maintains, failed to stand up to their president when he was leading the country into the Big Muddy. Well, here we are, and for the second time McMaster has acted in public to excuse egregious behavior from the president’s inner circle. In speaking of backchannels McMaster was directly misleading–the ones he refers to are set up within the U.S. government and the communications usually transmitted by the CIA. What Backchannel Jared sought was a com link over Russian channels. That’s what you do when you need to consult on an ongoing operation and don’t want your own side to know about it. See what I mean about sinister?

Defense: When Is Too Much?

May 26, 2017–President Donald J. Trump yesterday took his campaign rhetoric to the level of potential diplomatic crisis, accusing fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies of, in effect, “owing” the United States due to the lesser amounts of money they invest in their military establishments. At the ceremonies opening a new NATO headquarters Mr. Trump pointedly remarked he had not asked how much the building cost–though as a contributor the U.S. knows perfectly well–and in a speech Trump castigated fellow allies with the language noted above.

Most commentaries on this matter have focused on the president’s politesse, or lack thereof. The sharper issue is, why should allies follow Mr. Trump’s stupid defense policy–and what business has the United States criticizing them for not following our disastrous lead.

Trump’s criticisms, on the campaign and now, ignore the entire reach of NATO history. The fact of the matter is that resource allocation has been problematic throughout the history of the alliance. During the Cold War that mattered. In the 1950s, before the reunification of Germany, and facing massed Soviet armies across the Iron Curtain, military buildup was a huge issue. That involved even the creation of a new German army–prohibited since World War II. A major NATO conference at Lisbon in 1952 even set down a timeline for force creation designed to field a military suitable to defend NATO Europe. But NATO allies, barely recovered from the war, could not meet the promises.

That was only one iteration of this story. NATO has never met either its force goals or its investment promises for one simple reason–the differential economic performance of its many, many economies. Not in the 1950s when the Soviet threat loomed. Not in the 60s-80s when the threat of tactical nuclear weapons use implied the destruction of Western Europe in its defense. Not in the 1990s, with the Soviet Union gone and the global economy booming. Not in 2016, in the wake of the European Community economic collapse of 2009.

The first piece in the puzzle is to ask why the United States ought to expect otherwise today, when there is no looming archenemy (even Mr. Trump proclaims Russia is our friend) to set against many competing economic demands.

Next question is, what is a proper level of defense spending. In the 1960s, to bring back that old bug-a-boo Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary brought in a generation of so-called “whiz kids” to revamp U.S. budgeting procedures (their system is still our foundation today). One of them was Alain C. Enthoven, whose key work is titled How Much is Enough? and sought to illustrate methods for rational decision-making in defense planning. Enthoven’s question is ours. Against what enemy are we building forces? None. The United States military outspends the next seven world powersincluding some of our NATO allies–taken together. But Mr. Trump pretends our defenses are deficient and wants to expand the defense budget another ten percent. What specific threat are the forces facing? Terrorism. But defense budgets buy aircraft carriers and infantry divisions that do not defend against terrorists. Most experts on the subject would actually argue that military forces are less effective against terrorism than diplomacy, spies; information and propaganda; economic aid, and other means. The Trump budget cuts all the more effective means in favor of mindless force-building.

A corollary element is where to draw the line. The whiz kids, arguably, would say it is at the point where military spending distorts the rest of the economy. Some experts think we passed that point long ago, but the gouging of non-defense spending in the Trump budget certainly puts a fresh, harsh light on this problem. To finance the defense increases plus tax cuts for the rich, Mr. Trump is gutting all the elements of the nation’s budget that help make America the place it is. And he is demanding that our NATO allies follow him in this?

The other side of the ledger is the cost of diplomatic confrontation. The “Article 5” of the NATO Treaty of August 24, 1949, has been much in the news recently. Article 5 is the central element of the alliance and provides the “one for all, all for one” aspect of action. But while that has garnered all the world’s attention, no one has been talking about the other aspect of Article 5–a geographic scope covering only Europe and North America. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 all the talk was about would NATO survive, because future conflicts would be “out of area” with respect to Article 5. Once the Bush administration began fighting in Afghanistan, later Iraq, it deemed the support of other NATO members crucial to the legitimacy of the conflicts, and NATO countries rewarded the Americans.

Mr. Trump is thumbing his nose at his sole base of international support, in service of a farcical defense policy that has a good chance of wrecking the fabric of American society.

Trump has smart bombs but stupid strategy.

John Brennan: The Flying Dutchman

May 24, 2017–John Brennan offered open testimony yesterday before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) on the Russian Caper. The former CIA director lent greater weight to and offered more emphasis on concerns the Russians had interfered with America’s 2016 election. Mr. Brennan’s worries, expressed as early as summer a year ago, were a factor in the FBI’s decision to open an investigation of the Russian Caper and in the legal and political hot water that President Donald J. Trump finds himself in today.

The former CIA director did not find too warm a reception at HPSCI. That was not only because its Republican members are doing their best to insulate the president. It is also due to Mr. Brennan himself. As spy chief in his own right John Brennan fought to  separate the CIA from the authorities tasked to oversee the agency. Like predecessors, Brennan talked a good line on responsiveness to oversight, then labored to deep six the Senate intelligence committee report on CIA torture, the most important bit of congressional oversight of intelligence in several decades. Brennan danced close to authorities, telling his nomination hearing that he favored release of the report, then sailed away, like the fabled “Flying Dutchman.” Brennan quashed the Senate report, refused to discipline anyone involved in the CIA program–or in efforts at countersurveillance against Congress–even drove the agency’s inspector general to resign.

One part of Brennan’s campaign to beat the authorities was to hype the threat (this also had something to do with the CIA’s drone war, of which Brennan had charge at the White House even before he came back to CIA). The combination of big threat from terrorism plus dangers of actually submitting to accountability put the CIA on a road to defiance. Then came the summer of 2016, when the agency saw signs of a Russian Caper. Brennan found it hard to get anyone willing to listen to him. Meanwhile the hyping of the threat further inflamed Americans, many of them willing to listen to Trumpian blandishments. John Brennan contributed to the election of Donald Trump–and he even helped complicate exposure of the Russian Caper, concurring with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s idea for a Russian Caper report so watered down it enabled those implicated to laugh off such a simple-minded effort.

The Flying Dutchman set his jib to the wind. Now he is being blown along by it.