Archive for August, 2013

Originally published in the Valley News

President Obama tells us he is in the process of deciding what measures, if any, the United States will take against Syria. This decision is based on a number of as yet unproven assumptions that are now being investigated by the UN.


Nevertheless, we are told that the Obama Administration will not necessarily wait for the results of the ongoing UN technical inspection of the site in question or for the formal agreement of our allies on a future course of punitive action, but that it feels free to act unilaterally whenever it pleases, with or without Great Britain.


We are told unequivocally that the Assad regime used the gas.  But what if it was the rebels?  The result of the gassing is likely to be American military action.  Who in Syria benefits from that?  Certainly not the Assad regime which, consensus says, already is winning the civil war.  Only the rebels could benefit and then only in direct proportion to the severity of our action.


In the meantime, just to further set the scene, the British have moved warplanes to Cyprus.  The US has four destroyers standing off the Syrian coast.  On the other side of the ledger, the Russians are moving warships to the Mediterranean basin.  Hezbollah has stated its readiness to become involved in any future military action against us.  Iran fully supports Hezbollah.


Our president proposes to “punish” the Syrians for the use of chemical weapons, not to weaken or destroy the Syrian military establishment.  He and his spokespeople have said a number of times that the purpose of what we finally do, whatever that may turn out to be, will not be regime change.


It all sounds sort of like trying to spank a lion.


We have spanked lions in the past, never to our ultimate benefit.  We have seen Pan Am 103 and the bombing of the Berlin nightclub as poignant examples of our inability to foresee or prevent retaliation against us for the kind of activity we are now contemplating for Syria.  And given the realities of geography, all we represent in the Middle East is a target rich environment.  With our diplomatic, business and educational assets spread out all over the region, they have more targets than any angry adversary could possibly need or want.


Obama, stuck with his ill-conceived Syrian red line, has nothing but bad options.  Option number one seems to be a slap on the wrist – something to persuade the Syrians never to use chemical weapons again.  What conceivable good will that do us, or more importantly, those Syrian rebels who do not support Assad?  What they want is American action that will destroy the Syrian regime’s ability to beat them.  A Syria-wide no-fly zone would be to their liking, or pervasive missile attacks on Syria’s military hardware.  Further, there is no reason to think that anything as minimal as this would bother Assad in any way.  Obviously, the deaths of this own people is of little concern.  The only thing that matters to him and his followers is the perpetuation of their own power which will not be threatened by such a slap.


Option number two is to undertake military action that is so destructive that the rebels will be able to defeat the Assad government.  What does that accomplish for us when we have little to no idea of what will follow Assad in power.  Will Al Qaida be in the mix?  Will today’s rebels turn on the Alawites in retaliation for Assad’s ongoing bloodbath.  Will that cause us to consider what we can do to save those same Alawites?


And, worst case scenario, will our action against Syria, whatever it proves to be, result in broader, more intense regional conflict?


Finally, it can be argued seriously that Syria and what goes on there is of no national strategic interest to us.  Those who call it a humanitarian duty to intervene fail to explain why we have not done so when thousands have been killed in their own African countries.   Given recent oil developments in the Western Hemisphere, there is no rational argument for national interest there, but then there never has been simply because oil is a fungible commodity that people who produce it will inevitably sell it to those who consume it.  Finally our decade long involvement in military activity in the region has ended whatever vestiges of influence we have left after decades of bashing the Arabs.


An American dog may well get mauled in this fight!


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Originally published in the Perspective Section of the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times Argus

When Congress passed the National Security Act of 1947, establishing the Central Intelligence Agency, it was the first time the United States had ever had a peacetime intelligence organization.

The concept of a secret U.S. intelligence organization had been widely publicly discussed between the end of the Second World War and l947.  Those who opposed the idea pointed out the dichotomy of housing such an organization in a liberal democracy.  Wouldn’t its existence go against the basic tenets of democracy?  It was a serious, prolonged discussion which was finally resolved in favor of the creation of the CIA.  The rise of the USSR and its acquisitive policies in Europe played a major role in forming a consensus that America would need the services of such an organization in the coming years.

So, the CIA was created to stand with existing military intelligence organizations and, in 1949, with the National Security Agency, as the United State’s primary espionage agencies.  This effort came to exist primarily because of the proclivity of other nations to guard their secrets, particularly when those secrets represented any potential threat to the U.S. and its citizens.

All of this discussion was open and public in nature.  None of it was classified.  Anyone who wished to become informed on the subject could find ample original source information in the public media.  The result was that anyone who chose to know could find out in short order that the United States was setting up a post-war intelligence structure to support foreign and military policy makers in the coming Cold War.

Now, suddenly, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden have jolted us, as an amnesic nation, into re-opening the same conversation, proving, if nothing else, that

America has no corporate memory.

If you believe that serious threats to the American nation ended with the demise of the Soviet Union and that no other such threats exist against the United States today, then probably you don’t see any objective need for this country to maintain an intelligence gathering structure.

If, on the other hand, you are concerned with America’s ability to protect herself against non-state terrorism, nuclear proliferation and nations that might somehow wish to harm us, then perhaps you can see some advantage in our having an efficient, functioning intelligence collection system.

The sole purpose of such a system is to provide policy makers with accurate information on the capabilities and intentions of any group that might wish to harm us.  During the Cold War we benefitted from the fact that we knew pretty well precisely who and where those hostile groups were.

Today’s world is far more complicated and confusing.  We are faced with a fragmented, franchised terrorist enemy which comes at us not only from abroad, but from within our own country.  Unlike an enemy directed by the Soviet Union, today’s enemies are self-directed individuals and groups, often with no ties to any central organization.  In intelligence terms, this deprives us of the option of penetrating the main organization to learn what the affiliates are planning to do.

Then, strictly in support of foreign policy, we are dealing with regions like the Middle East where political stability is a thing of the past and where the main result of the “Arab Spring” has been chaos, which has made policy decisions extraordinarily complicated and accurate intelligence mandatory.  Further, the nuclear activities of countries like Iran and North Korea mandate intelligence input.  And because none of these countries and non-state actors is going to tell us what they are up to, covert intelligence collection is the only answer.

Intelligence collection was never designed to go unmonitored in America.  The 1947 Act and subsequent legislation creating the intelligence community have had built into them appropriate controls that mandate legislative and judicial monitoring.  In fact, today all we have are allegations that wrongdoing is possible, not that it is actually happening. That’s akin to saying that the US military shouldn’t have guns because they might one day aim them at their fellow Americans.

What that implies is that those Americans who are most agitated by information coming from today’s leakers and are most negative on intelligence collection are those who believe that those who work in the intelligence community or monitor their work are not to be trusted.

There are two keys here.  First, the overwhelming majority of employees in the intelligence community are honorable, patriotic, well-intentioned people.  When you combine their sense of right and wrong with solid, appropriate oversight, you minimize whatever problems might arise.

Second, without intelligence, we are blind in an increasingly hostile and dangerous world.


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Invade Syria?

Originally published in The Barre Times Argus and the Rutland Herald

It is quite clear that here in the US and in the West in general, policy makers are divided on whether or not the west should invade Syria. American “political realists” have pulled out the stops to show the dangers and stupidity of such an invasion, whereas American supporters of “permanent war” led by the same neocons that got us into Iraq are just itching to get us enmeshed in Syria.


The “discussion” of this issue has not always been on the up and up.  In fact, the potential for inserting disinformation into the equation is endless.


In a May 9 article, The Times of Israel ran an article laying out Israel’s suspicion that Syria is in the process of buying six S-300 missile batteries and 144 missiles from Russia.


Syria already has a highly advanced air defense system, one that has caused our military planners to be very circumspect about any sort of military adventure in Syria.  The addition of a Russian system that is capable downing both fighter planes and cruise missiles would represent a significant upgrade for Syria’s already highly effective air defenses.


Clearly, the purpose of the article was to warn the

United States that the sale could hamper efforts for

international intervention in Syria.  Were we being told that we should act sooner rather than later?


This suspicion had previously been reported in the Wall Street Journal.  The critical question here is whether or not any of it is true.


Then we have the issue of the use of poison gas in Syria.  The original accusation was that the Assad regime had been the culprits. Just now, we have learned that the UN says that the US-backed opposition used the gas, not the regime.


Of course, the poison gas would not have been a major issue had it not been for the inept and ill-considered presidential “red line” that has reduced US options in Syria and put presidential credibility at stake.


But we have the allegations of the poison gas and the unfortunate “red line”, so it really does matter.


Further, there have been constant allegations of atrocities committed by the government and the rebels since the onset of the Syrian insurrection.


The Assad regime is 100% sectarian.  Supported by a smattering of Christians and Sunnis, the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, have governed in Syria through fear and repression.  That is about all one can do when representing no more than 15% of the overall Syrian population.  Since the 1970 Assad coup against the Baath regime, the minority Alawites have ruled the majority Sunnis with an iron fist and have allied themselves with Iran and Hezbollah against Israel.


In short, with the exception of Shia Iran, there are few in the region who support the Syrian Alawites.
It is likely that Bashir Assad and the Alawites will only leave Syria in coffins.  They probably see no alternative but to stand and fight.


Like everything else in the Middle East, Syria is part of the detritus of colonialism – a “country” formed for the convenience and profit of the old western colonial powers.


With America set up as the main enemy for the Syrians, there is little wonder that we are besieged by all manner of horrendous stories about poison gas, missile deliveries and atrocities.  But keep in mind that we are looking at a soundly cynical world in which everyone and anyone is prepared to lie to forward their own interests.


Russia has long had a political stake in Syria and still has a naval base there.  The Syrian Sunnis (freedom fighters?) have always chafed under repressive minority Alawite rule.  The Alawites, seeing no reasonable alternative to staying in power, will fight on.  The Iranians see the Alawites as one of their few allies in a predominately Sunni world.  Hezbollah sees the Alawites as their champions in the Hezbollah fight with Israel.  Israel sees the Alawites as a constant irritant.


So, who really is behind the poison gas, the missile story and the atrocities?  To understand that, one has to look at who benefits from what course of action.


The Israelis, Sunnis, Lebanese, Turks, Saudis, Jordanians and some conservative Americans probably would favor US intervention in Syria if only in the name of stability.  These people clearly would try to pin any bad behavior on the Iranians, Shiites Alawites and Hezbollah, true or not, that might encourage US intervention.  Then there are the Russians, Iranians and Chinese who would avoid such an intervention.


But in the end, it will probably be U.S. public opinion that decides and there is a growing group of Americans who are exhausted by our wars of the past dozen years and understand the very real dangers in direct Syrian involvement.


With any real luck, they will prevail.


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