Who Trumps Whom ?

May 11, 2017–In the game Bridge the players establish a set of expectations and nominate a suit of wild cards before play of the hand begins. They do this in a ritual of bidding, four players in two teams for the game. The players also seek to signal their partners the strength of their hand through this same bidding process. The card suits have a rank order from the lowly Club to the top-notch Spade, and from the deuce at the bottom to the Ace at the top. “Two Clubs” is the smallest opening bid you can make. If your hand is not worth that you pass. To bid in “No Trump” is nirvana, indicating your hand is strong in every suit. If the bidding results in a named suit, by contrast, play of any card in that suit will beat the highest card of the suit currently on the table. This is relevant in today’s political controversy–I have heard pundits who could not resist the endearment of “Trump trumps Comey,” as the dismissed FBI director disappears out the door. But my thought is that the bidding was wrong–the card tricks will not play out the way Mr. Trump thinks.

The president, being Donald Trump, naturally bid “No Trump,” the strongest form of play. In No Trump the top card in the suit in play wins. There are no wild cards. The cards mean what they say. Sometimes a player with a weak hand bids in No Trump when he should not, or an inexperienced one does not know any better. This is problematic for President Trump because he has the lead in this game, and he is trying to escape the consequences of the Russian Caper.

There will be thirteen card tricks in the play of the hand. Mr. Trump took the first two when he benefitted from Russian intervention in the presidential campaign and then when he won the election. After that he started to squirm. The big reveal of partner Mike Pence’s hand showed the cards are not so strong after all. Trump bulled his way through a trick by insisting the Russian Caper is a hoax, then sacrificed one by remaining silent as Congress organized to investigate Moscow’s role in American politics. But the attempt to coax out the opponents’ high cards flubbed when the White House was revealed to be bending the congressional  investigators to its whim.

On the next trick came a major blowup, when national security adviser Michael Flynn was caught on surveillance tapes talking to the Russian ambassador. Flynn further complicated the play, at every step being caught in more compromising poses (taking Russian money, disguising that he did, neglecting to get required permissions, to register as a foreign agent; even carrying water for his foreign clients at the very moment of the election). The FBI, headed by James Comey continued its investigation throughout all this, and when Mr. Trump entered office the Flynn dossier had already grown thick. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates did Trump the courtesy of giving the White House advance notice of the burgeoning file. Rather than do anything about Flynn, the White House demanded to see the evidence. Trump lost a trick when Mike Pence rushed to Flynn’s defense, spouting Flynn’s phony denials as gospel truth. Trump’s spin doctors made it worse by attacking media for doing their jobs–and the president doubled down by, in fact, blaming the media for the dismissal of Michael Flynn.

Mr. Trump’s sixth trick was to blame Barack Obama, alleging the former president had ordered surveillance of his political campaign. That flubbed too.  Carter Page of the Trump campaign was a subject of FBI investigation for his role in the Russian Caper, but that flowed from solid investigative leads. When Mr. Trump fatuously declared the “leaks” of juicy tidbits from the investigations to be the problem, rather than the Russian Caper itself, he lost another trick. The latest press reports paint a president furious at the FBI for continuing to investigate the Caper instead of focusing on the phony Obama surveillance allegation. Trump still had one high card. He used it to fire Bureau director James Comey. But the incompetence and lack of political skills of Mr. Trump’s White House are such that no one made any preparations for handling the fierce questions that were sure to follow Comey’s dismissal. Trump took a trick but immediately lost another.

Now the president is stuck. The Russians actually have some of his cards. No one knows how many. Trump himself is down to, say, a deuce of clubs and a three of diamonds. The game continues. Opponents have the big cards and–because this is No Trump–there are no wild cards to smite them. It’s not enough any more to assert that no one is interested in this story, or that it’s yesterday’s news, or that it’s fake news, or any of the other low-grade deceptions Trump has relied upon in the past. Stay tuned.

Fearful Leader Against Loose Cannon: CIA’s Purge Begins

January 5, 2017–For all his bombast, expressed in 160 character sound bites, Donald J. Trump is a loose cannon. One of his targets has been United States intelligence. Regardless of his latest–“The media lies to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence” when in fact I am a big fan!”–what is consistent in the Trump messaging, for months now, is that American spies are in his crosshairs. This sense is well enough established that since before the American elections you’ve been reading here of the coming purge of the spooks. The message carries beyond Trump–his minions spout it at much greater length and with blatant exclamations the CIA lacks evidence for a conclusion that Russia sought to influence the U.S. presidential election.

As this is written the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and his top agency directors are appearing on Capitol Hill to acquaint Congress with their conclusions in more detail. The DNI, General James Clapper, has long been an obsequious apparatchik, so much so that it’s amazing he wasn’t able to get in with president-elect Trump. In any case, the DNI has assembled a report on Russian hacking, which goes to President Barack Obama and Congress today, and which is supposed to be briefed to Trump in New York tomorrow.

There is more than a little irony that Donald Trump thinks little of U.S. intelligence and its charges. To start with Clapper, who has been a Fearful Leader, seeing threats behind every bush and creating an atmosphere that helped make possible the emergence of Trump, is now being slapped down by one he built up. This DNI also pictured his own employees, American spies, as the major threat to U.S. national security and then, when he finds a foreign (Russian) threat, can’t get that taken seriously by the incoming president. In fact Mr. Trump is evoking Julian Assange of Wikileaks–a person whom Fearful Leader and associates have wanted put away (or worse) to refute the reported intelligence findings. A further irony lies in the fact that FBI director James Comey, who played a key role in Trump’s election with a panicky eleventh-hour allegation against the president-elect’s opponent, is part of the delegation who will go to New York to brief Mr. Trump on the hacking findings. Trump has already rejected regular receipt of the top secret President’s Daily Brief. The notion he will be receptive to the message on Russian hacking is wishful thinking.

Here’s my prediction on what will happen: Mr. Trump will emerge from that meeting to say he is taking the intelligence on board. That will endure for about 24 hours, long enough for Fearful Leader and his own acolytes to get back to Washington and report how tense was the encounter with The Donald. The U.S. intelligence community, which is already reeling from charges of complicity in torture, obstruction of justice, foundering amid an operations-oriented reorganization, will add deep disarray due to its stock in trade, analysis, being rejected out of hand.

Mr. Trump has already asserted that he knows things the rest of us do not, and pontificated (rightly, actually) on the inherent insecurity of computers, while inviting the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton, and then asserting that some 400-lb guy sitting on his bed could have been the hacker. Trump cannot accept the intelligence on Russian hacking because it challenges the legitimacy of his election.

What is truly disturbing in this is that intelligence is being read with rose-colored lenses.  The field is full of arguments about the disastrous effects of what observers call “politicization,” but that has traditionally referred to spies self-censoring, serving up what they think the president wants to hear. No one has ever dealt with the situation where the “validity” of intelligence depends on whether it can pass the test of the president’s pre-existing beliefs. The politicization here is demanded by the consumer. CIA calls into question Trump’s rosy picture of the character of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It has got to shape up. That is why there will be a purge, half of it made up of honest professionals fleeing this craziness. The CIA that emerges at the other end of this will be desperate to regain President Trump’s esteem, ready to do anything at all.

Pearl Harbor, the Emails, and the Purge

December 11, 2016–How often hopes are dashed! I had been working up to do something around the 75th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor when the latest email developments emerged. Sad for me, the absolutely crazed email scandal must take precedence, so I’ll turn to that. The Russians, the elections, the CIA and FBI, Trump–it all swirls around in some cosmic stew, morphing repeatedly into new configurations that lead in unanticipated directions. Let’s start by reviewing where this story came from.

For Americans it began with the “Clinton emails.” Readers of this space will recall our refrain that Clinton was being lambasted for creating communications channels that were legal at a time when authorities had yet to order the emails  preserved as government records, and for handling “classified” information when no one knew what was actually secret, and where a lot of the heat was generated by after-the-fact attempts to make secret what had not been. The argument here has been that Hillary’s alleged transgressions were no different than those of many high officials and that–to the extent any of this should be deemed illegal–it’s time to change the law so that the conduct of policy can be straightforward.

For some foreigners the story begins much earlier, with so-called “cyberwar.” The latest reportage maintains that as early as the presidential campaign of 2008, Chinese hackers penetrated the online communications of both Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. Over the past two years a new wave of this activity, traced to Russian sources, has again penetrated private communications. At first this was represented as only those of the Democratic National Committee, but later the circle of victims expanded to the Clinton campaign committee, and to the personal account of committee chairman John D. Podesta. Latest reports add the Republicans to the victim list. (NOTE: No reports claim that any of the Clinton emails from the original controversy are involved in this one.) Cyberwar turned into political warfare when the (alleged) Russian hackers began leaking inside information from the Democratic emails in a way so as to damage Hillary Clinton’s election campaign.

During the summer of 2016 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) let it be known it suspected Russians as the hackers responsible for these penetrations. In the fall our Fearful Leader– the Director of National Intelligence– and the Department of Homeland Security together repeated that message on October 7. In the days since the election, says new reporting, the Central Intelligence Agency affirmed the conclusion the Russians are behind the hacking, traces it to the Russian military intelligence service GRU, identifies specific officials supervising the project, and finds the activity part of a political warfare plot to influence American politics.

Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump used the Clinton email issue as a political weapon to impugn Hillary’s discipline and even insinuate criminality. When charges of Russian hacking first surfaced, Trump not only denied that, he invited Russia to hack Hillary in search of missing emails. When intelligence agencies began confirming the hacking charges, Trump denied the substance again, and charged the spooks with being off their rockers. His spindoctors refute the most recent allegations by charging intelligence with being the same people who told us that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Trump is clearly set to purge the intelligence agencies–something predicted here before the election.

Meanwhile there is the most curious behavior of the FBI director. Having found that Mrs Clinton had not committed criminal acts in her handling of email (June 2016), Director James Comey chose to resurrect that issue just ten days before the election in a way that was most damaging to Clinton: action aimed not against her but the estranged husband of a close aide, with no actual knowledge or even suspicion that classified information was involved, and against advice of both Fearful Leader and the Attorney General not to do it. If it now emerges that Comey knew the Russians had hacked Republican computers and kept that quiet, while drawing attention to leaks aimed at Democrats, that raises serious questions about whether Director Comey had political intentions, especially in the context of his sudden late-campaign action that also damaged Democrats.

Maybe I can get Pearl Harbor in here after all!!!– One of the arguments about Pearl Harbor that has raged down through history is whether the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941 represented the last step on a back door road to war. Historians Charles Beard and Charles Tansill were among the first to assert that President Roosevelt sought to provoke Japan as a means of getting the US into World War II. There have been other versions of this story too–Winston Churchill did it, factions within the U.S. government did it, there have even been allegations that Adolf Hitler did it, prodding Japan to attack the Americans. The 2016 election is sure to echo down the years–and there will be disputes about the outcome. Did the Russians engineer it? Did the FBI? Did Mr. Trump win the election? Did Hillary Clinton lose it? Meanwhile Donald Trump is set to purge the intelligence community.

The End in Saigon: 40 Years On

May 4, 2015–This is a bit late–and it will be posted in pieces–but there is still a lot to say, perhaps though, to a diminishing audience. The first thing I want to say is “Hurrah!” While it was going on–and no matter what side of this thing you were on–the Vietnam war was pure trauma. Tragic too, it needs to be said. It went on for years then, for that very last part, got even worse, except if you were North Vietnamese. The angst, the sadness, the heart wrenching scenes of desperation and defeat–none of it was good and its was worse if you were involved personally, as Vietnamese or American. Now it is over. For many of the boomers, that trauma came at the formative moment of their lives.

This year it is over for the 40th time. There has been a remarkable outpouring of reflections, remembrances, speculations–in the press, broadcast media, and in events such as conferences marking the occasion. I’ve participated in several of them. I have reflections of my own.

The first is to note the continued vigor of those who yearn for a different truth. Like southerners refusing to acknowledge the “Lost Cause” following the Civil War, a significant number of Americans, primarily veterans and Vietnamese-Americans (refugees and their descendants) continue to insist that America did not lose the war, even that we won–or we won but threw away the victory–or that the Congress lost the war, or that the antiwar movement lost the war, or that the media lost the war. There are many variations on the theme.

In truth the war was lost quite convincingly. Our adversaries not only marched right into Saigon, our allies collapsed. We ended by desperately evacuating Vietnamese and Americans from the city even as the North Vietnamese and Liberation Front forces took over. The argument that Congress lost the war by refusing President Gerald R. Ford’s demand for yet another aid appropriation is misinformation. Not only was that aid request intended simply to fund a last-ditch stand–not anything that could have led to a military victory–there were unexpended aid funds lying unspent in current accounts at the time Saigon fell. And it was American presidents, not the Congress, who cut the aid requests from $2.2 billion for 1973, to $1.4 billion for 1974, to $1 billion for 1975.

Lost Cause deniers present well-worn arguments, over and over, in a litany that ignores refutations. The point above has been made before. So has the point that another important causal factor in the South Vietnamese collapse was the Arab Oil Embargo, which for a time specifically intended to cut off fuel deliveries to South Vietnam, and which ultimately meant huge increases in the price of oil–with immediate consequences for the South Vietnamese military and the Saigon government. That instantly soaked up a greater proportion of the available U.S. aid. This was something that had nothing to do with the U.S. Congress, media, or the antiwar movement. No matter.

Deniers make no effort to explain how the Thieu regime could eliminate the corruption on which its leader had relied to maintain his hold on power, and which functioned to drain away another slice of U.S. aid.

Deniers deplore aid to North Vietnam from the socialist camp but fail to compare that with U.S. aid to South Vietnam. The truth is that the United States delivered more aid to Saigon after U.S. forces left the war than China and Russia together provided throughout the conflict.

Saigon as well as Hanoi conspired to tear up the Paris Ceasefire on 1973. Deniers make no effort to analyze this in a balanced way, which is unfortunate since South Vietnam’s main chance for survival at that time lay precisely in ensuring the continuing operation of that agreement. The Korean war ceasefire of 1953, which has been behind the continuing division of the Koreas, could have served as the model for South Vietnam.

The argument that the National Liberation Front was defeated and the pacification war won ignores the fact that the United States itself moved the conflict from the level of an insurgency to that of a conventional war. The various formulas for isolating the battlefield by cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail are all flawed–either the forces were not available in the moment, the logistics were not there, or the political evolution of the war had passed the point when the stated action was possible. The deniers don’t seem to care.

For the 40th time we observe the same history–that is, the North Vietnamese did march into Saigon. Our proponents of the Lost Cause, you would think, must be tired by now, since each time we revisit this history it has the same tragic and traumatic content.

A second point is that “victory” did not mean what our former adversaries thought. North Vietnamese authorities made a hash out of reunification and reconciliation, and never did escape entirely from wartime ways of thinking. The peace so many longed for was enveloped by fresh challenges from China allied with Cambodia–and the Chinese challenge continues to this day. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, meanwhile, now maintains friendly relations with its erstwhile enemy, the United States, partly to counterbalance the Chinese challenge. At the same time, the dynamism of Vietnamese of the south has come to play an important role in governing the nation and as Vietnam’s economic engine.

To learn one must start by acknowledging true conditions and developments. Our Lost Cause deniers and our North Vietnamese victors have this in common: neither group can bring itself to acknowledge truth. At their most extravagant the deniers turn history on its head and claim the war was won. The Vietnamese victors willfully refuse to admit their abuses in the postwar era. More recently, when significant capital inflows to Vietnam are coming from the overseas Vietnamese, the Viet kieu, the Vietnamese government has been slow to amend regulations that separate and divide families, or to dismantle repressive wartime ideological controls.

When the next major anniversary of the end of the war comes it would be delightful to be able to report that we have moved past these counterproductive and spiteful attitudes.

NSA vs Silicon Valley: Can’t Win? Change the Subject!

May 3, 2014–So, what the whistleblower said was all true. In fact, the whistleblower hardly said anything. He let the documents do the talking. The National Security Agency is intercepting anyone they want and collecting the metadata on everyone. The additional documents, legal rulings, that had to be released to “prove” that this dragnet eavesdropping had any juridical basis at all only showed that the denizens of Fort Meade had indeed sought to create a framework for doing precisely what the Snowden documents said.

The diplomatic costs have come home to roost. German-American talks on a spy treaty have collapsed. Our side blames the Germans and makes it out to be somehow off-color that another nation should demand that what American spies do on German soil cannot be illegal under German law. The Word is we don’t make deals like that even with our closest allies. The more insinuating text is that what spies do is basically illegal anyway. Why care?

Ukraine is one reason. German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Washington this week, her talks with President Barack Obama shadowed at every turn by the NSA eavesdropping scandal. Barack needs Merkel now–he needs her to stand with him on Russian encroachments on the Ukraine, an issue on which Germany can be a major player. But Merkel is still licking political wounds inflicted upon her by the NSA scandal. Obama was conspicuously smiling at their joint appearances but underneath the president must be acutely aware of how Fort Meade’s antics have hurt his larger projects.

The NSA started off by insisting it was not collecting data on anyone nor was it eavesdropping. Then it claimed it was “only” dealing in metadata. Then it was only aiming at legitimate intelligence targets, and not Americans. After revelation that our friend Merkel’s phones were bugged, the line went that everybody spies on their allies. As the evidence of massive NSA interception mounted the spooks squirmed on the hook of public disaster. All that interception (phone calls, emails, cloud memory holdings, game moves, web search data) might just send them into oblivion.

President Obama didn’t want that any more than Fort Meade. Back in January he moved on some reforms–not enough, but a start. The problem remains that the spooks still need a way to reframe the issue so they are not at the center of the cross-hairs. It appears that both Mr. Obama and the NSA  are on the verge of creating that narrative.

It was around the New Year when you began to hear–first in Op-Eds by spy-world figures like the former CIA officer John McLaughlin–that the NSA is only doing the same sort of data-mining and cookie reading the corporations engage in. Their point that the privacy issue is bigger than NSA spying is actually well taken. I’ll buy that too. So did Obama. He ordered up a study of web privacy issues and got the first results right around when Chancellor Merkel came to town.

But the White House and Fort Meade should be careful what they wish for. Yes, there should be much more stringent privacy controls on what Silicon Valley can read out on ordinary people. As a matter of fact, Angela Merkel’s country is one where some of those more stringent controls already exist, and those privacy standards are one reason the NSA spying has been so damaging over there. Your phone should not be an NSA target for the same reasons as Merkel’s.

What the spooks would like to come out of this is for citizens to say–for reasons of convenience–that Silicon Valley data-mining is OK and that, if it is, the NSA spying is fine too. But there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in these observations. Silicon Valley cannot target a drone on you or throw you in jail. It collects your data in hopes of winning your (and your friends’) dollars. The NSA eavesdropping is purposeful. It traces your connections in hopes of linking you and your friends, and if at some “hop” there happens to be a bad guy in the chain, woe to you all. What the NSA really doesn’t want is for privacy advocates to say that Silicon Valley and NSA spying are both wrong. Of course, that’s what is actually true. Everyone needs “Merkel rules.”

The Putin Doctrine

April 24, 2014–The news today is that Russian troops on the eastern border of the Ukraine are going to conduct military exercises, while Moscow warns the Ukraine not to rock the boat by using force against pro-Russia activists in the eastern Ukraine. This follows reports earlier this week that specific Russian special operations troopers had been identified in mufti among the Ukrainian “protesters.” (Today the New York Times, which reported this story, went back on the original claim after doubts emerged regarding the photographic evidence. The claim nevertheless has a certain plausibility.) Vladimir Putin’s earlier statements affirming his dedication to “New Russia,” in effect all the lands that formed parts of the historical Soviet Union, smack of irredentism– as was discussed here not very long ago (see “What Do You Say to a Country Called Ruthenia?” from March 24th).

Speaking of the old Soviet Union, it was an article of faith in Soviet military doctrine that “maneuvers” furnished great opportunities for disguising the unleashing of force. These various elements lead to a suspicion that Mr. Putin may indeed be laying the groundwork for a military operation.

It’s been a long time–decades now–since leaders of the former Soviet Union renounced the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” and much longer than that since Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev articulated that excuse for military intervention. Remember the “Prague Spring” of 1968? For me the tears still come when I reflect– on how it seemed a people were insisting on forging their own path into the future, and how the Soviet leadership insisted on their right to prevent any Eastern European nation from leaving Moscow’s camp.

President Putin is making a similar claim today, first to Crimea, now it seems, to the eastern Ukraine. It is the latest evolution of a policy that has included armed action in Chechnya and Georgia. Putin would apparently like to reunite the parts of the historic nation under the Russian flag. Thus the “Putin Doctrine.”

Mr. Putin should be careful what he wishes for. In Soviet times the need to enforce the Brezhnev doctrine helped drive unrealistic levels of military spending, and led to aid and trade commitments to Eastern Europe, both of which helped bankrupt the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The situation for Russia is not all that different today. The Russian economy, while stronger by far than Ukraine, remains weak on the international stage, and economic sanctions can wreak real damage to it. Equally to the point the imposition of Russian political, legal, and economic systems on what has become a foreign entity (whether Crimea alone or Ukraine as a whole) is going to involve real costs. Whether the Old Russia can bear those costs remains an open question. So far, reports out of Crimea indicate Putin’s minions are having difficulties creating the administrative mechanisms necessary simply to run the place.

As is so often the case in international relations, the resort to force or to coercive diplomacy is so much easier to initiate than is the follow-through required to make actions stick. With the Putin Doctrine I fear the future will bring continued chaos in the areas Russia has annexed; charges the problems are due to meddling from Kiev and, perhaps, Washington; and force used against Ukraine itself. Putin’s problem is that the further he expands his writ the more deeply he will become entrapped in a bed of quicksand. This would be a good time to reconsider. But it is likely already too late.

[This post was revised on April 25 after I saw reports disputing the accuracy of claimed photographic evidence of Russian special operations troops in the Ukraine.]

What do You Say About a Country like Ruthenia?

March 24, 2014– Remember Ruthenia? I thought not. How about Carpatho-Ukraine? Transylvania? Bessarabia? Bukhovina? Danzig? The Curzon Line? Maybe Sudentenland. I’ve no time today for anything very ambitious–and my pardons to the songwriters of The Sound of Music–but I just wanted to put one disturbing issue on the table. All those (Central European) places have in common that they were subjects of claims and counterclaims based on national preferences and/or ethnicities in the period between the two world wars of the 20th Century. Some of them were even awarded from one nation to another, or made into free state enclaves during various diplomatic parlays of the time.

Here’s the issue: the latest rumblings to emerge from the Crimean crisis are mentioning a Russian interest in Transnistria (never heard of that either?–not surprised). It’s a piece of land in between Ukraine and what is now Moldova. I mention these places–you could pick any continent and find similar examples–because the current problems in Eastern Europe increasingly seem to be opening the door to assorted territorial claims. There used to be a word for this. In the 1919-1939 period it was called “irredentism” and considered by some to be a cause of World War II.

The Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s show very clearly the dangers and insanity of the use or threat of force to impose border and nationality changes based on claims of national preference or ethnicity, real or imagined. At the moment this is being driven by Russia, which ought to have learned better from Chechnya. Regardless of the border change there is always a significant minority population, suddenly oppressed, to become restive and resentful. The better solution to changing borders is to eliminate them by fostering political inclusiveness within and among states. Someone should stop a minute and think this through. The world has enough problems already.

The Mission: Crimea, Dien Bien Phu

March 20, 2014–Sixty years ago today it was foggy in Long Island Sound—much like it was in Washington this morning–as the trans-Atlantic flight lined up on its approach to Idlewild Airport (today Kennedy). The plane bore a top French general on an emergency mission. He was General Paul Ely, the chairman of the French Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the mission was to beg for all kinds of U.S. military aid. In Indochina the French garrison in the mountain fortress of Dien Bien Phu had come under attack and suddenly all the old assumptions were in question. The Ely mission was a desperate gamble to secure U.S. help. General Ely went in thinking merely of planes, guns, and ships. But while he was in Washington the question of an American intervention was put on the table by U.S. officials.

You can read all about the Ely mission here. But my purpose today is more immediate. The Dien Bien Phu crisis of 1954 bears useful comparison with the maneuvering today over the Crimea. Russian president Vladimir Putin is using his military forces to annex the Crimea, which used to be Russian but became part of the Ukraine until this past weekend. Ukrainian forces are weak, no match for the military power Russia can bring to bear. Leaders in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, are as desperate for American help as the French at Dien Bien Phu.

The two crises are different in any number of ways. In the Crimean crisis we are talking regular troops, not a guerrilla army versus a Western one. The present crisis is a matter of state power, not revolution. But what is similar is the structure of the two situations from the point of view of the American president.

Indeed, there is a mission involved here too–Vice-President Joseph Biden’s sudden trip to Poland and Lithuania, lands abutting Russia (the former the Ukraine as well) who are alarmed at the events unfolding. Biden’s reassurances to concerned leaders mirror those American officials gave France in 1954.

Like Dwight D. Eisenhower then, Barack Obama would like to sustain the Ukraine and preserve its territorial integrity. (We’ll leave aside the question of the respective Russian and Ukrainian claims on the Crimea.) But from Washington’s perspective the question must be one of deployable military force. In 1954 President Eisenhower had plentiful naval and air power with which to intervene. Officials who opposed that course argued that those kinds of forces would prove insufficient and that ground troops would be necessary to make an intervention work. Eisenhower took measures to signal his intentions while his top advisers dickered over their course.

Obama is acting in the same fashion. The Biden mission is one signal, as is an invitation to the Ukrainian prime minister to visit Washington. Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighters have been sent to Poland and Lithuania to betoken U.S. capabilities to act. Just a week ago the main strength of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, the task force built around the nuclear aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush, made a port visit to Turkey, at the entrance to the Black Sea, where lies the Crimea and the littoral nations of Russia and Ukraine. One warship from that force, the guided missile destroyer Truxton, went on into the Black Sea, where it visited a port in Rumania and conducted exercises with the Rumanian and Bulgarian navies. Authorities in Washington say the naval moves are all long-planned actions but their function as signals is still clear.

Washington’s problem today, just as in 1954, is the mismatch between U.S. capabilities and the measures that would be required to obtain the outcome it prefers. A guided missile destroyer and a few fighter-bombers are not going to stop the Russian army. The whole Sixth Fleet also lacks the necessary capacity. Boots on the ground would be required. Most American boots are in Afghanistan or in the process of returning to the United States and being reconstituted. The only nearby available U.S. ground force is the reinforced battalion combat group that is the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit in the Mediterranean, which recently participated in maneuvers in Greece.

If anything, in 1954 Dwight Eisenhower possessed greater capacity to act in the local situation–but there it did not work either. In the current situation, if the signals are too many or too forceful there is a danger of inadvertent escalation. Mr. Obama will need considerable diplomatic dexterity to get out of this situation without harming relations with either the Ukraine or Russia (the latter being already bad enough).

Meanwhile Kiev is sending its own signal–instructing Ukrainian military forces to evacuate from the Crimea. Mr. Putin may have succeeded in his annexation. Let us hope that this crisis does not sharpen any further. But some attention to historical precedents like Dien Bien Phu might help officials to clarify their thinking.