Where Obama Erred

June 25, 2017–The alternatives were to give a televised speech from behind his desk in the Oval Office, announcing a series of measures to counter Russian political intervention, warning American citizens a foreign nation–was Putin a friend?–had meddled in the 2016 election–or to take quiet action (much earlier, covertly) to make it plain to Moscow that its actions were counterproductive. Doing nothing was not an option. That or anything else was a variant of what has appeared here several times in the past, in connection with the U.S. intelligence chiefs–that putting out the weak-kneed, diffident “statements” or “reports” that they did, was worse.

Fingering the Russians but including only generic palaver about computer hacking or remotely related data about RT News only made it harder to achieve the clarity that might have stood Putin down. Today’s Washington Post (“Obama’s Secret Struggle to Retaliate Against Putin’s Election Assault,by Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, June 25, 2017) shows precisely why. When briefed by CIA director John Brennan, Republican figures on Capitol Hill chose to play partisan politics. Some made themselves unavailable to be briefed. Others asked why they should believe CIA when the U.S. intelligence community as a whole was nowhere to be seen on this. Brennan, who had cut his agency loose from oversight in the torture controversy (read about this in detail in my forthcoming book The Ghosts of Langley), had only himself to blame. It would be cuttingly mordant that only the Democrats, whom Brennan had spurned, stood up to defend our country. On September 22, 2016 Senator Dianne Feinstein–Brennan’s direct target–and Representative Adam B. Schiff jointly told the public that Russia was conducting a campaign to undermine the U.S. election. Republicans scoffed.

On October 7 followed a statement from Homeland security director Jeh Johnson and director of national intelligence James Clapper asserting Russian intervention, but in terms even more vague. Johnson, with FBI director James Comey and White House counterterrorism director Lisa Monaco, had already failed to convince Hill denizens at an August briefing. Johnson had failed again when reaching out to state election directors in September. The conventional wisdom about the October 7 joint statement has already settled in: that it was wiped out by the revelation just hours later of Donald J. Trump’s misanthropy as proven by videotapes taken by a television show on which he had appeared. But the joint statement on the Russian Caper fell due to its own lack of weight. Johnson was batting with two strikes against him already. Clapper had a reputation as a liar, established by his perjury when asked if the National Security Agency were conducting blanket surveillance of Americans. In my opinion, Clapper was also the “Fearful Leader,” a Chicken Little continuously warning the sky was falling. Republicans could fairly dispute whether the full intelligence community agreed with these charges against Russia. The FBI, indeed, had pulled out of the joint statement at the last moment, inviting the question of where were the others.

Republican candidate Donald J. Trump had publicly invited the Russians to hack America in hopes of finding emails from Hillary Clinton he claimed still existed. Some moves of Trump campaign figures were known at the time, including the Moscow trips of associates Michael Flynn and Carter Page; the fact of pro-Moscow alternations to the party platform at the July 2016 convention; and the Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April, which added to a mounting pile of public statements in which the candidate praised Vladimir Putin or else Russia more generally. Republicans took this as their cue, overturning decades of Republican Party hostility to Russia–and the Soviet Union before it. They put on blinders and earbuds when confronted with evidence of Russian election tampering.

President Barack Obama’s key moment came then. With Republicans actively denying the Russian Caper, the question became what to do about the election. Mr. Obama had taken Putin aside at a diplomatic conference in China in September to warn him against interfering. He repeated the warning in a message given to Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the White House just as Johnson and Clapper put out their joint statement. Obama may have thought of this as moving on multiple fronts, but the truth is that Republican deniers robbed the diplomatic protest of any power it might have had. On October 28, when FBI director Comey announced he was reopening the Bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, inflicting grave political damage on the Democratic Party candidate, it became even more incumbent on President Obama to act. Obama is widely reported to have feared any open presidential intervention in the electoral politics. In 1968, faced with the analogous situation of evidence obtained of a Republican “October Surprise,” a Nixon campaign deal with South Vietnam to throw that election, President Lyndon B. Johnson also chose to do nothing in public. Perhaps Obama emulated LBJ. Instead he went out on the hustings, Michele Obama too, in a whirlwind of campaign appearances over the last days. Obama could have taken to the air waves with an Oval Office address warning Americans their election had been influenced by outside forces. He chose not to do that.

Barack Obama’s biggest problem as president, for all his achievements, was to lack the courage of his convictions. From letting the generals talk him out of the Afghan withdrawal he had set as a condition of their “surge,” to imposing a “red line” in Syria and then failing to enforce it, to dictating a new secrecy policy and then letting the agencies run roughed over it, again and again this president compromised short of his own goals. Obama’s holding back in the 2017 election may prove to be his greatest error.

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.

Flynn’s Suspenders Showing

February 10, 2017–Yesterday in this space appeared a discussion of the new National Security Council staff headed by retired general Michael T. Flynn. There I referred to a still-concealed disaster in Flynn’s management of the Defense Intelligence Agency as a potential scandal waiting to happen. Today’s news reminds that there is a bigger controversy in Mr. Flynn’s involvement in backchannel contacts with the Russians both before last year’s elections and during the interregnum between Barack Obama’s presidency and Donald Trump’s entry into the White House.

The column yesterday referred obliquely to Flynn’s connections with Putin’s Russia, where he boasted of having been invited into the inner sanctum of the Russian military intelligence service GRU. He had also sat to dinner with Vladimir Putin on a public occasion, and taken money for the visit. During the election campaign Flynn was in touch with the Russian ambassador to the United States, both personally and on the phone, and by tweet. He spoke with the ambassador on the same day in December when then-President Obama imposed additional sanctions on Russia for its intervention in U.S. politics. Senior American intelligence officials largely agree Flynn discussed the sanctions with the Russian diplomat.

Flynn’s activities are disturbing at best, and may have impeded Obama’s conduct of U.S. foreign policy. There’s a legality issue as well, but I won’t go there because the facts are still too murky. Suffice it to say there’s already enough smoke for Trump spindoctors to be working, with their usual veering close to alternate facts, to minimize Flynn’s contacts and obscure his purposes. General Flynn’s suspenders are showing. Stay tuned!

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.]

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.