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President Trump addressed our NATO allies in Brussels today, giving a speech that perfectly well could have been written by Vladimir Putin. Why Putin? Because it was brazenly inappropriate for the NATO venue and almost certainly was badly received by those allies and their constituents.Forget his boorish, egocentric behavior in abruptly and rudely shoving a fellow NATO member out of the way so he could move to the front of the assembling pack of dignitaries. Focus instead on what he actually said and did not say during his speech and on the likely effect that those words, or lack of words, would have on his fellow NATO presidents and their people.

The president hit hard on his view of the need for NATO members to tighten their immigration procedures. That is one of his ongoing complaints and one on which most Europeans disagree with him. It is an issue on which he has minor support around the world or even at home. It was hardly appropriate for that particular meeting of NATO heads of state.

In addition, he used the occasion to complain bitterly about the ongoing disinclination of many NATO member countries to pay their way, thus saddling the American taxpayer with expenses that should have been borne elsewhere. All of that is true and it is a theme that has been addressed by every American president since Harry Truman. This was a message well known to NATO and one which, under two of Trump’s predecessors, was beginning to have a positive impact resulting in rising contributions. His harping is not likely to help his cause.

In short, it was very much along the lines of ongoing Russian policy on Europe, NATO and the West.

What would have been appropriate for Trump to cover was a reiteration of America’s support to its fellow NATO members to accept and support the provisions of Article 5. That NATO provision commits every member to support any and all attacks against any of its fellow members. It was Article 5 that prompted the entire NATO membership to sign on with America after 9/11.

We are now at a moment in time when Russia is behaving very aggressively with most of the Western world, most emphatically including NATO’s European members. We have seen it in Ukraine and in Crimea. Additionally, the Russians have clearly been meddling in European elections. Here at home we have seen it in their covert meddling in our primary election process.

Under present circumstances, what our fellow NATO members wanted from the United States president was a clear, unequivocal statement that we still support NATO and adhere to the provisions of Article 5. They got neither.

What they got was a speech that never seemed to contradict Trump’ previous negative statements on NATO or the European Community. It never stated this new American administration’s commitment to NATO and the provisions of Article 5.

In short, it was very much along the lines of ongoing Russian policy on Europe, NATO and the West. It was almost entirely negative and non-supportive on those issues on which the NATO members wanted, needed and expected to hear — a strong reiteration of America’s past supportive policy.

America will find diminishing support for its leading role in NATO and the world, including in the counterterrorism arena, one of great importance and one of Trump’s favorites.

Just what Putin would have wanted if he had written the speech himself.

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 Originally published in Vermont Digger

Successful bilateral foreign policy has historically required a level of predictability on both sides. Without that, both sides are running blind and disaster becomes far more likely.During the second presidential primary debate, candidate Donald Trump criticized Mike Pence for supporting the concept that the U.S. bomb the Syrian military if Russia and the Assad regime continued to strike civilians. Hillary Clinton had just called for a no-fly zone in Syria. Pence and Clinton wanted America to police violations of the international rules of warfare. Trump, by contrast, wished to ignore them and is explicitly on record as not favoring the world police role for America, which he has now undertaken in Syria.

The administration says the real issue is poison gas, but is poison gas so bad that by contrast it makes killing people by other means perfectly acceptable? Why has our new president not retaliated or even spoken against the killings by other means of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians, most emphatically including children, who have already perished in their civil war?

We have now been involved in a 16-year undeclared war in the Middle East which began with our invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Americans have learned a great deal about the region during those years. Perhaps most importantly, we have learned that we are no longer admired and respected in the region. That change in attitude has come about primarily because of our military activities there and it follows that further military activity will only increase local hatred for us.

Where does the world stand when the American president is wildly unpredictable?

Our military presence there, even when we are clearly killing bad guys like the Taliban, al-Qaida and ISIS, has created a series of situations in which locals who once appreciated us have found it necessary to choose between us and our enemies. Far too often that choice has been dictated by the fact that the American forces are foreigners killing their countrymen.

We have learned that Syria is run by a minority (13 percent) Alawite (Shia) government and that the vast majority (75 percent) of Syrians are Sunni. We know that 85-90 percent of Muslims are Sunni, leaving the Shia in a tiny minority. We know there is no love lost between them and that they have a long history of conflict. What we are watching in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East are bits and pieces of that old conflict, now often in the form of civil conflict within “countries,” created a century and more ago by Western imperialist nations, that really can’t survive without relentless internal repression or massive external help.

Picture yourself as a Syrian Alawite (Shia). You are the Shia with your finger in the dike of Sunni repression. You would do anything to maintain the status quo in Syria. The largest Shia country in the region is Iran. Iran has the same concerns about its existence as the Alawites in Syria. They are under the gun from the Sunnis. The Iranians do not intend to see another Shia-run country go down the tubes, so they are supporting Syria both directly and through Hamas and Hezbollah, their surrogates in the Levant.

Additionally, Russia has historical geopolitical designs that have persuaded them to support the minority Alawites in every way possible. After all, Syria is the only country in the regions that has provided Russia with a naval base and that is and always has been a critical consideration for Russia.

What we now have here in America is an elected president who, between the campaign and his incumbency, has changed his position on just about every issue with the possible exceptions of wealth and power. It would appear that he has little understanding of, or is persuaded to overlook, the critically important realities in the Middle East.

As unpleasant as that may be for those of us who are disinterested in participating in another Middle East ground war, that is not the real issue. The real and infinitely more dangerous issue is that foreign policy over the millennia has required consistency and some level of predictability on the part of its participants. What probably saved America and the Soviet Union from nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was that each side was, in the main, predictable and thus relatively understandable to the other.

Where does the world stand when the American president is wildly unpredictable? How will he be read by countries like North Korea, China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and others with actual and hoped for nuclear weapons? What will they do in such a new, completely changed environment?

What is said to have worked in business negotiations will not necessarily work in international relations.

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Originally published in THE RUTLAND HERALD                      

 

Vladimir Putin is a Russian who understands Russian history. He is swayed only by his pragmatism and has a very precise picture of what he wants for Russia in the world today.

President Donald Trump has a sparse record on the policy level and can only be measured by his statements since the beginning of the primary campaign.

Keep in mind that Russia is still very much our enemy. The fascinating thing is that Putin’s stated goals seem to be almost completely in harmony with those of Trump. Precisely what are those goals?

NATO

If Putin could write his own ticket today he would want to see the end of NATO, which has been a thorn in the side of Russia since its inception in 1949.

Trump has called NATO “obsolete.” There is concern here and in Europe that Trump’s comments will not only undermine the European Union, but benefit Russia, which would prefer a weakened NATO and a strained Europe-U.S. alliance.

Trump, in his distaste for NATO, has made it abundantly clear that he opposes the membership of any of the former Soviet satellite countries in that organization. What this has done is strengthen right-wing political movements in those countries, movements that oppose the E.U. and NATO and their countries’ involvement with them.

EUROPEAN UNION

Putin will revel in Britain’s exit from the E.U. and in the chaos it causes. The political swing to the right resulting from the xenophobic European reaction to the refugee flow and the concomitant move away from European political cooperation is clearly approved by Putin. Such is the case in countries like Austria, Italy, Sweden, France, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Trump shows little love for the E.U., saying recently that he had a “very bad experience” in which “getting the approvals from Europe was very, very tough.” Trump seemed to be referring to an E.U. ruling against a wall he wanted to build at an Irish golf course he owns because it would endanger protected snails.

Trump has negatively dismissed the 28-member E.U. as a “vehicle for Germany.” European officials and analysts say the Trump administration seems to be trying to rewrite the terms of the U.S.-E.U. alliance in ways that are potentially destabilizing for Europe.

SYRIA

The flow of refugees from Syria, the rest of the Middle East and Africa to Europe does not bother Putin because that flow also further weakens the E.U. and, through that, NATO. That partly explains the continuing heavy involvement of Russia in the Syrian conflict.

Trump’s Syria strategy, as seen by Foreign Policy, would be a “disaster.” The president-elect wants to fight the Islamic State and to cease support to those fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The main effect of those policies, however, would be to eliminate the moderate opposition to the Assad regime, empower extremism and create chaos across the Middle East.

EAST EUROPE

The historical Russian preoccupation with border states like Estonia, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, all of which are showing indications of dissatisfaction with E.U. involvement, is of critical interest to Russia today. One of the causes of that discontent, migration from the Middle East and Africa, is something the Russians would clearly like to foster.

US DOMESTIC

Putin would do everything possible to weaken the United States. He would love to see ethnic and religious divisions in the United States grow. He clearly revels in the dissent that now exists in our political system between Republicans and Democrats.

Given the first few days of his administration, it is clear that Trump wishes to continue the ideological and political divide that has plagued this country for far too long. His recent edicts on Muslims in the U.S. have provoked widespread, divisive demonstrations around the country. His moves in foreign policy have exacerbated the same national divisions.

US INTERNATIONAL

Putin would want to see America to withdraw from the world, particularly from areas like the Middle East where Russia has had unmet goals for centuries. He would do everything possible to see us lose our ability to affect events abroad.

“America First” — we all know that to be a cornerstone of Trump’s overall policy. What it means in terms of our foreign policy is that we will withdraw from the world. No longer will America be a dominant force, politically economically or militarily, in the international arena.

If you agree with Russian policies as reflected here, then there is no problem. If you do not, this administration’s policies are a real cause for worry.

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Originally appeared in THE RUTLAND HERALD

The situation today in Israel/Palestine (the old British Mandate of Palestine) is dictated almost entirely by history, by demographic reality and by the fact that each of the parties involved seeks to control the entire area at the expense of the other.

Historically, the first documented instance of the name “Israel” dates to the 12th century B.C., although Jews previously had already been living for centuries in what is now Israel/Palestine. During the first two centuries A.D, the Romans expelled most of the Jews from the area and replaced Israel with the Roman province of Palestine. That was the beginning of the Jewish diaspora. After the third century A.D., the area became increasingly Christian. Following the seventh century, it was largely Muslim and remained so until the middle of the 20th century.

On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a partition plan for the British Mandate. This plan established borders for new Arab and Jewish states, side by side, and created an area of Jerusalem that was to be administered by the United Nations.

The end of the British Mandate was set for midnight on May 14, 1948. That day, David Ben-Gurion, the president of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, declared “the establishment of a Jewish state, to be known as the state of Israel.” That proclamation precipitated the departure or expulsion of almost three quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs from Israel, many of them ending up in refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries. Tens of thousands of them and 1.5 million of their descendants remain in those camps today.

Since 1948, Israel and Palestine have both felt aggrieved. The Israelis feel that they have an historical and moral right to the area by dint of their past ownership in the centuries before Christ. The Palestinians believe that they were expelled from lands that were theirs because of their occupancy of those same lands after the death of Christ. The parties have gone to war over the issue on five occasions since the founding of Israel in 1948 and have seldom lived in any sort of peace.

The international community considers the establishment of Israeli settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine illegal under international law, because the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 prohibits countries from moving their citizens into territories (the Palestinian occupied areas) occupied inawar. The U.N. Security Council, the U.N. General Assembly, the International Red Cross and the International Court of Justice have all affirmed that the Fourth Geneva Convention applies. Israel disagrees, saying the 1967 conflict was not a war.

Since 1948, the United States has vetoed dozens of anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian resolutions in the U.N. Security Council. The first time America has done anything different was when it abstained on the late December 2016 U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlement construction, creating a maelstrom in Israel and inducing endless anti-Obama administration remarks from right-wing Israelis and their American supporters.

Israel has choices. It can occupy all of Israel/Palestine, as some Israeli voices are already recommending, and either expel, or leave the Palestinian Arabs (the numerical majority) as non-voting, non-citizens, thus voluntarily becoming an apartheid state. Or it can create a state that includes Palestinian Arabs (the majority) as voting citizens — voluntarily becoming a non-Jewish state. Finally, if it truly wishes to survive, it can agree to the creation of two separate states, Israel and Palestine.

The demographic realities of Israel/Palestine dictate that, under the current arrangement, in 2025, 48 percent of the future population residing there will be Jewish. That would drop to 46 percent by 2035. The Palestinians are reproducing at a rate far faster than the Israelis.

Absent a two-state solution, if Israel wants to remain democratic, it will be in the minority in its own country. If Israel chooses to remain Jewish, it will have to expel the Palestinians or go to an apartheid system. Neither of these solutions is acceptable. Israel is a democratic Jewish state and is internationally acceptable only as such. Given the reality of demographics, that can only be accomplished through a two-state solution with Israeli and Palestinian states side by side in peace.

Those who argue for the two-state solution, like Secretary of State John Kerry, are the best friends Israel has, whatever Mr. Netanyahu chooses to say. Those who argue against it, whether Israeli or foreign, are Israel’s worst enemies in the long run.

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Fifty-one State Department officials have just signed an internal memo protesting U.S. policy in Syria, calling for targeted U.S. military strikes against the regime of Bashar al Assad and urging regime change as the only way to defeat ISIS.

 

The internal memo was sent throughout the “dissent channel” which is defined as “a serious policy channel reserved only for consideration of responsible dissenting and alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues that cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels and procedures” and “which will not be subjected to reprisal, discipline action or unauthorized disclosure of its use”. It was established in the 1960s during the Vietnam War to ensure that senior leadership in the department would have access to alternative policy views on the war.

 

The views expressed by the U.S. officials in the cable amount to a scalding internal critique of a longstanding U.S. policy against taking sides in the Syrian war.

 

It is safe to say that our incredibly counterproductive military involvement in the Middle East during the past dozen years was a outgrowth of the powerful influence held by neoconservatives in the Bush administration.

 

It is equally safe to say that “liberal interventionist” ideology has played a role in foreign policy under the Obama administration.  Obama’s first Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton is widely described as “hawkish” in her foreign policy views and her administration has always contained liberal interventionists, many of whom have remained there after her departure from State and the arrival of Secretary Kerry.  They still play important roles in the formulation and conduct of foreign policy.

 

However different the origins of liberal interventionism may be from those of neoconservatism, the net result in foreign policy is not that different.  Both ideologies believe in the export of democracy and regime change, policies that have rightly come under attack here and abroad, given the negative results of our recent military activities in the Middle East.

 

So, the question is, are the State department “51” simply a continuation of our old notions of the export of democracy and regime change?

 

In all of this and regardless of the motivation behind the “dissent channel” memorandum, the only important question to be asked is, what would be the result?  That assumes we become more heavily involved militarily against the Assad regime which would be an act of war in itself.  What do we do about al Qaida’s Al Nusra front?  With Iran?  With the Russians? With the Chinese?  With the Saudis?  With the Iraqis?  Who is on our side?  Who is against us?

 

Assuming we can successfully engineer this regime change, whom do we then pick to run the country?  Do we pick the remaining Alawites with their Shia allies in Iraq and Iran?  Do we pick Sunni Syrians with their confessional ties to ISIS and Iraqi Sunnis?  Do we install the military?

 

Irrespective of what we do, how will the competing confessional groups in the broader region react?  How have they already reacted in Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria?  Does America really have a dog in this fight?

 

Whomever we pick under these circumstances, we will own the responsibility for the Syria of the future, a Syria that will always be contested by the ethnic and confessional forces that rule and roil the Middle East.

 

It is difficult to determine the precise motivation of these 51 co-signees in favor of military intervention.   However, regardless of that motivation, given our recent history in the region, it seems like a crazy, no-win thing for America to want to do.

 

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Rural Ruminations

by Haviland Smith

 

Before we adopt a new Syria policy, a quick review might be helpful in better understanding the endless confusion that rules over the situation in that region today.

Sunni Arabs, Kurds and Turks make up about 72% of the Syrian population, Shia 13% and Christians about 10%. The Syrian government, its military and economy under Bashar Al Assad are dominated by the Alawites (Shia). Minority Alawites and their allies run everything important in Syria.

The current civil war in Syria began in the Spring of 2011 with the establishment of the Free Syrian Army, a group of Syrian Army defectors who are roughly 90% Sunni.

This struggle has been something of a proxy war with Iran (Shia) and Yemen (Shia) the main supporters of the Assad (Shia) regime with outside help from Russia. Arrayed against them in support of the rebels are Jordan, Saudi Arabia (the birthplace of Sunni fundamentalism), Turkey and Qatar (both Sunni) along with France, Britain and the US. The sectarian violence has spread to Lebanon where Hezbollah (Shia) has allied itself with the Assad regime and, additionally, fought with Lebanese Sunni groups.

ISIS began life as a fundamentalist Sunni organization. In effect, ISIS is a criminal organization populated by thugs for whom there are no rules of decency. Given sufficient exposure, it is highly likely that ISIS will completely alienate the Sunnis in Northern Syria and Western Iraq, as there is nothing in the Koran (as it is seen by the vast majority of its adherents) that justifies the murderous activities in which they have continuously been involved. Shia Iran is ISIS’ foremost committed enemy. Whose side are we on?

In addition, we have the new Iraqi army which is now being trained by the United States, but which has been referred to as “not so much an army as a vast system of patronage”. The Army, beholden as it is to the Shia government of Iraq, excludes from its ranks any Iraqi who might be opposed to that government. The army is widely said to have been infiltrated by local militias and foreign insurgents, resulting in secular killings and operational failures. It is, to all intents and purposes an inefficient, albeit Shia, operation. Further, current reporting indicates that much of the anti-ISIS opposition comes from Shia militia from Iraq. Do we want our boots on the ground with them?

Then we have the Kurds who are the largest ethnic group (28,000,000) in the world without a country and whose people are spread out over Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are estimated to represent 15-25% of the total population of Turkey. Even though they are Sunnis, like the Turks on whose land so many Kurds live, they are viewed with grave suspicion by the Turks as ongoing threats to the sovereignty of Eastern Turkey. In fact, they do find time to kill one another on a fairly regular basis. Whom do we support?

So we have this incredible mélange of ethnic and sectarian Middle Easterners involved either directly or indirectly in the Syrian insurgency. It is impossible at any given time, to predict just how they will react to the wide variety of scenarios that exist for the future. They are hardly the sort of allies that the US is used to and from whom we could possibly profit. Who are our friends? Our enemies?

Counterterrorism doctrine promotes police work, intelligence collection and Special Forces operations, never military. No matter what the Administration says, Syria is not a counterterrorism problem. It is a counterinsurgency problem. Some Americans openly promote American troops on the ground in Syria. US military doctrine dictates that in fighting an insurgency the occupying force must have one combatant on the ground for every 20-25 residents of the country involved. Even with all the Syrians who have left their country, there are probably around 22 million left. That would mean a force of 440-550,000 troops. Are we up to that? Who will pay for it?

And then there is the other reality. We have learned from our invasion of Afghanistan that if you overlook the rules and put American troops on the ground fighting against an organization that even the local residents hate, you present those residents with a dilemma. Do they support the invading Americans or do they support an indigenous group that they otherwise would hate? Our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq give us a pretty clear answer to that question.

These realities will not change simply because our policy makers want them to. And then, what is our goal? Even if we are successful in bringing down ISIS, what then?

We are so over our heads here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald and the Barre Times-Argus

During the Cold War, America and the USSR spent vast resources on the non-aligned world. Preeminent in that world were the countries of the Middle East. They were important because they produced much of the world’s crude oil and because control over that resource represented an incredibly powerful economic weapon. Both the Soviets and their Western competitors actively sought influence and control in that region.

Clearly, from 1945 until very recently, it was in the critical national Interest of the United States to maintain its influence in the Middle East. We needed the oil and we needed stability in the region.

“National interest” is defined in many ways, most of which focus on matters that are crucial to the wellbeing of any given state and often argue for military intervention.

Much has changed since our 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Prior to 9/11, America had a reasonably positive reputation in the Middle East. Today, less than one-in-five Palestinians, Egyptians, and Jordanians offer a favorable opinion. In the past ten years, polls have shown that roughly 75% of Muslims have an unfavorable view of the US Government, believe the US goal in the region is to weaken and divide Islam, and condemn American attacks that harm civilians. A like majority approve attacks on American troops in the region and favor the goal of getting America to withdraw all its troops from Islamic countries.

And this is in the face of a Muslim population, over 85% of which does not support Al Qaida, share its views or approve its methods!

In today’s world, an organized proficient terrorist organization does not need to hold land for terrorist training and planning. They can plan and carry out operations from any decent sized metropolis in the Western world. The real dangers reside in the angry minds of self-motivated crazies like those who have recently struck in Canada. They are not military problems. They are problems that can only be contested with intelligence and law enforcement assets.

The simple act of putting American uniforms on the ground in Islam has completely changed realities there. Instead of combatting terrorism, we have been forced to challenge and fight those who have wanted to change governance in their countries. Add to that our ongoing use of air power with all its unintended consequences. This has inevitably resulted in local populations supporting their own, whether the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS in Syria/Iraq, rather than the foreign invader and occupier, thus creating insurgencies for us to deal with.

In post war, post colonial Islam, we had two preeminent foreign policy goals, the maintenance of stability and control of the oil. In a Cold War setting, in a region where we were constantly contested by the Soviets, that policy made sense because it was in our national interest.

But what about today?

The Arab Spring gave Muslims the hope of self-determination. The problem in the region is not only that there is no history of that, but that stability and order have been maintained in the past by repressive governance. And if we are to understand Muslim attitudes towards us, we have to realize that they deeply resent the fact that those repressive governments were maintained in power by US Cold War policies. Unfortunately, stability, where it exists today, is still largely dependent on repression.

Add to that our ongoing attitude and policy toward Palestinians, our tolerance of Israeli settlement activities, our military invasions of the region, and our precipitous fall from favor in Islam becomes more clear.

And what of oil? With its newfound focus on shale, the United States has now surpassed Saudi Arabia in crude oil production.

The resources that are needed to fight movements like ISIS, Khorasan, Hizbollah and other fundamentalist Muslims groups, belong to the countries where they are active. If Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Maghreb and the Gulf states feel threatened, it will and should be up to them to provide the military power needed to combat them. It is not and should not be our fight because it is not in our national interest.

So, how can we find a “national interest” in present and future military activity in Islam? The simple answer is that we can’t. It is far wiser that we concentrate on intelligence and Special Operations – both of which are acknowledged to be the most effective tools against terrorism.

The worst mix in the world is the conventional US military trying to deal with terrorism on foreign soil. It will only, inevitably make matters worse morphing terrorism into far more difficult and expensive to contest insurgencies, as it already has in the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

 

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