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Originally published in RURAL RUMINATIONS

The development and implementation of the Trump administration’s current Afghan policy appears to have been deferred to the Pentagon. All we know about Trump policy toward that region is that he vowed during the presidential campaign to completely destroy ISIS, Al Qaida and any other threatening terrorist organization.

Estimates coming out of the Pentagon indicate the likelihood of an additional commitment of several thousand troops to Afghanistan. Before we make any moves in Afghanistan, it is important to look critically at the past and at our motivation for what to do now and in the future.

We got to Afghanistan based on two realities. The immediate catalyst was 9/11. Second, we saw it as a key element in our oil interests in the region, a way to get our foot in the door. The outgrowth of that was our fabricated rationale for the invasion of Iraq. which morphed into our current array of difficult dilemmas in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

In short, that momentous decision in 2001 launched us into a region which our government studiously never chose to understand and which was so incredibly complicated that it flummoxed one US administration after another.

So, what do we want or expect from our continued military involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East? Apparently, we would like to see a stable region under democratic rule. We never hear US officials talking about self-determination, only about regime change and democracy.

In fact, it makes no ultimate difference what the US wants for Afghanistan and the Middle East. It only matters what they want for themselves and as long as we are pushing values and ideas that are alien to them, we will never see the end of chaos.

Afghanistan’s geographic location has made it an important cog in the Middle East. It has been fought over and occupied for millennia by big powers seeking regional hegemony. That has relatively recently included England, Russia and the United States and none of those powers has succeeded in changing the country or the minds of its peoples. Over many centuries, those and other struggles have caused hundreds of thousands of Afghan deaths and significant resentment.

Given recent developments in the world, oil no longer plays the role that it did 25 years ago.   That alters one of our reasons for remaining militarily engaged in the region.

Terrorism is our other worry. We were hard hit on 9/11, but that sort of operation against us seems to be far better controlled now than it was in 2001. The fact is that the nature of terrorism has changed. It no longer requires hideaways in the mountains or deserts of the Middle East where terrorists can be given rigorous military training. Terrorism today involves self-motivated, highly disaffected individuals who volunteer to ISIS or any other terrorist organization to carry out suicide attacks. They work with automatic weapons and murderous vehicles. Even bombs are within their reach and recent operations have shown that those weapons can be developed undetected in apartments in major western cities.

Terrorists have no need for “bases” like those previously operated in the Middle East. All they need are volunteers and central direction and that can be found, as is now the case, in countries that are not in the reach of US troops assigned to Afghanistan or the Middle East, making them no longer critical to our counterterrorism needs.

What, therefore, could possibly motivate US policy makers to continue and even augment a decades-long war that is today virtually irrelevant to the realities and motivations that got us there in the first place? It would seem that the only rationale that stems logically from that is that we are interested in regime change and the subsequent maintenance of a democracy imposed on them by us. And yet, we know that doesn’t work.

Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that Middle Eastern nations have values that differ from ours. In doing that, we would also have to acknowledge that there are major, conflicting differences between some of the states in that region and that to leave them to the resolution of their own conflicts would likely be a violent process.

Yet, the only real peace and stability that can ultimately exist in the region is that engineered by the people involved. Perhaps we should give them the opportunity to work that out in the absence of on-site US military power while limiting ourselves to diplomatic, political and economic involvements.

 

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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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During the Cold War, the United States Intelligence Community was plagued with conspiracy theories covering just about any event that was deemed to be important to our national interest. Some of those theories were so wild that they were unprovable one way or the other. Others were clearly the product of some individual’s paranoia. Many of them were the product of a general unease within the Intelligence Community over the aggressive activities of the Soviet Union and her allies.At the end of the Cold War, those paranoid concerns began to drop by the wayside. They were not revived until the planes hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania field on 9/11. That raised a wholly new paranoid concern – that the 9/11 events had somehow been engineered by unidentified powers within the United States government. The Bush administration, the Pentagon, the CIA and the Intelligence Community were all labeled at one time or another as the evil powers behind that horrendous event.

In retrospect, what finally put most of those old conspiracy theories to rest were two realities. First, there was never any hard intelligence provided to prove the theories. Second and more important was the realization that any theory that relied on the participation of vast numbers of American citizens would be doomed to failure simply because, at the very least, one of them would have blown the whistle on the plot. The best example of that was the realization that American government involvement in 9/11 would have required far too many participants to have kept it secret. And such a conspiracy was never proven or revealed by hard intelligence or human penetrations.

Was that the end of the age of conspiracies? No way! The 17 member organizations of the U.S. Intelligence Community have said unequivocally that Putin’s Russia was involved in a conspiracy to effect the U.S. elections of 2016. Although few “facts” have been made public, there is a solid consensus that it really happened and that the Russians were actively involved in the operation.

However, unlike past presidents, he somehow feels compelled to publicly express his admiration for a group of foreign leaders whose activities are so questionable that they would never have been praised by any of his predecessors.

One thing that makes today’s new conspiracy theorists so intensely focused on this Russian involvement is the clear picture that our president has given about his likes and dislikes, most emphatically including his views about the world leaders with whom the United States must deal. What he has told us is that, first and foremost, he admires strongmen who seize power and exercise it in whatever way is necessary to maintain it. However, unlike past presidents, he somehow feels compelled to publicly express his admiration for a group of foreign leaders whose activities are so questionable that they would never have been praised by any of his predecessors. What sort of intellectual, moral and ethical environments do these attitudes set for members of this administration?

The list is endless and includes primarily those who, at best, have terrible human rights records and employ what in this country would be seen as extra-judicial methods in order to maintain their power. His favorites begin with Vladimir Putin of Russia and continue with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Abdelfattah Said Al Sissi of Egypt, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. In addition, he has spoken admiringly of Syria’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moamar Khaddafi, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, China’s Xi Jinping, Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.

Why would any president of the USA openly deal with or speak positively of such a group? When thinking about that, one has to consider that that may be precisely what our president would like to be, a powerful autocrat. If that is the case, and particularly given Russia’s involvement in our 2016 elections and his recent praise for Putin, it becomes less problematical to speculate about Russia’s further involvement in U.S. politics.

Today’s Russia, particularly under the leadership of former KGB Col. Vladimir Putin and his former KGB colleagues, and specifically in the fields of intelligence collection and intelligence manipulation, is simply a continuation of Soviet Russia. The KGB’s successor organization, the SNB, is simply a continuation of the old days with new people.

The questions that any conspiracy theorist has to ask are pretty simple. What was the nature of Russian intervention in the 2016 election? What if any assistance did the Russians get from people in the Trump campaign? If they exist, who were they? Most important, if such relationships existed, as broadly alleged, have they been maintained by the Russians into the president’s first term?

That is the crux of the matter and that last question is essentially rhetorical. Soviet and Russian modus operandi dictates that they would maintain such relationships, particularly given the overriding importance of America to them as an intelligence target. Given the acknowledged meddling of Russian intelligence in our election, it would be foolhardy to assume, at least until proven otherwise, that the Russians have not recruited and are not running any penetrations of the current American administration.

In the end, conspiracy theories will persist. Some of them are accurate, particularly when they appear to be supported by existing facts.

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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 Vermont Digger

President Donald Trump has taken the position that Americans have a great deal to fear from terrorism. Fear is the backbone of all his statements. Every time there is a terrorist event anywhere in the world, we get tweets and other White House media coverage that constantly remind us how vulnerable we are to this so-called “terrorist threat,” even though the event in question may have had nothing to do with America. Additionally, the “terrorist threat” is the basis for incredible amounts of “alternative facts” being circulated out of the White House and its employees. Some “true facts” are in order here.According to Life Insurance Quotes, a business that focuses on educating consumers on the various aspects of life insurance, the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are about one in 20 million. A person is as likely to be killed by his or her own furniture, and more likely to die in a car accident, or in a building fire, or drown in a bathtub than from a terrorist attack.

The libertarian Cato Institute has arrived at its own finding: Nationals of the seven countries singled out by Trump in his travel ban have killed zero people in terrorist attacks on U.S. soil between 1975 and 2015. Zero. Six Iranians, six Sudanese, two Somalis, two Iraqis and one Yemeni have been convicted of attempting or executing terrorist attacks on U.S. soil during that time period. Zero Libyans and zero Syrians. “Foreign-born terrorism is a hazard,” the Cato Institute argues, “but it is manageable given the huge economic benefits of immigration and the small costs of terrorism.” The study concludes that “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year.”

Business Insider states that Americans are six times more likely to die from a shark attack (one of the rarest forms of death on Earth), 29 times more likely to die from an asteroid strike, 260 times more likely to be struck and killed by lightning, 4,700 times more likely to die in an airplane or spaceship accident, 129,000 times more likely to die in a gun assault, 407,000 times more likely to die in a motor vehicle incident and 6.9 million times more likely to die from cancer or heart disease than they are to die in a terrorist incident.

Heightened fear in populations has often led to the end of existing forms of government, largely because a fearful population is relatively easy to manipulate.

Finally, the National Safety Council states simply that the odds of Americans dying at the hands of refugee tourists are one in 46,192,893 and at the hands of immigrant tourists, one in 138,324,873.

There is no reputable source in this country that says anything different about the terrorist threat. It is anything but real. In fact, the threat is so miniscule that we are forced to wonder precisely what motivates the administration to tout it so forcefully. What are their goals in distorting the truth so ceaselessly? Why are they trying, so obviously, to turn America into a land of “terrorist paranoia”?

People who succumb to the “alternative facts” on the “threat of terrorism” that are now being put out by the Trump administration are creating a new and different world for themselves. It will become more important to them that they be “safe” than that they be “free.” Benjamin Franklin said appropriately in 1755, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” That could not be more true today.

It seems therefore likely that the administration is trying to create and then expand an environment of fear and terrorist paranoia. Why they would be doing that is a far more difficult question. Do they seek additional power or wealth? It is difficult to construct any theory that is benign toward our people or our democracy. It does seem however, that the promotion of “terrorist paranoia” is likely designed to create a situation in which the population will be prepared to give up freedoms to the central government in return for “safety” provided by that same government.

Heightened fear in populations has often led to the end of existing forms of government, largely because a fearful population is relatively easy to manipulate. Fear is a vehicle that despots often try to ride into far more restrictive models of government. History is rife with examples of this and whatever the motivation, there is absolutely no reason to think that American democracy is immune.

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Originally published in Vermont Digger

Thanks to the infighting between the Trump administration and the congressional Democrats, it is now patently clear to anyone who cares to know that the U.S. government has phone taps on the Russian Embassy in Washington. That was probably an unnecessary revelation, but it will have few negative ramifications for the United States.

Equally, there will be few consequences for the Russians in their embassy. They all know from their own experiences and their own identical operations against other countries that such taps must exist and that they must conduct their business accordingly. The only consequences for them will be that people who might want to contact them anonymously may now have a second thought about doing so, fearing their identification through those taps.

The issue that remains in this bizarre situation is, what was in those phone calls? Does anyone in his or her right mind believe that there are no transcripts of those calls? There simply are no phone taps that do not produce transcripts.

It must be obvious that Russia is hostile to the United States. To think otherwise is dangerously naïve.

 Having acknowledged the existence of the phone taps, we have already done as much damage to our own counterintelligence efforts as we could have – and that was not too much. Having done that, why don’t we release the contents of those calls between members of the Trump primary campaign and the Russians?

The Trump primary workers and the current Trump administration have indicated that those employees have committed no crimes or indiscretions and that there have been no contacts with members of the Russian Embassy staff. They have only acknowledged those made by Gen. Michael Flynn on the issue of sanctions. That being the case, they should be happy to see the contents of the transcripts revealed, since, according to them, they will be vindicated.

This is not an issue that should be brushed aside. It must be obvious that Russia is hostile to the United States. To think otherwise is dangerously naïve. Their national goals and ours are totally different and increasingly in conflict.

It seems obvious that the Russian government has made a number of covert attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election. It really doesn’t matter whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, that is internationally unacceptable behavior. It would seem that this Russian government has every intention of continuing this kind of covert action operation and since it strikes at the most basic elements of our democratic form of government — free elections — we cannot afford to let it slide by unchallenged.

Given what we have been told by the congressional Democrats and the Trump administration and assuming that everyone involved is telling the truth, there would seem to be no American losers, only Russian, in an examination of the transcripts of those phone calls.

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald

 

America’s success in domestic counterterrorism depends on two critical elements: The extent to which the American people descend into “terrorist paranoia” and the extent to which we alienate our Muslim citizens and residents.

Fifty years ago terrorism was seen primarily in dissident national groups working against the nations in which they lived.

Today the world of terrorism has changed. The primary authors of 21st Century terrorism are found in radical Islam.

The dominant radical Muslim terrorist modus operandi used to be operations mounted from abroad against enemy countries in which terrorists were recruited, trained, equipped and directed on trips from their homelands to radical Muslim centers abroad.

Now, those operations are conceived and run autonomously from abroad, mostly from Syria and Iraq. The recruited terrorist may never leave his home country. The recruitment, training, provisioning and execution of the operation are likely to be run entirely remotely via encrypted internet from abroad. All of this complicates our efforts to counter terrorism at home.

These realities have reinforced the decades-old international conclusion that the only truly effective counter-terrorist measures are intelligence and law enforcement operations.

The best allies that law enforcement and intelligence organizations have in the conduct of current counterterrorist operations are moderate Muslims. In a perfect world, one in which they are living undisturbed lives, moderate Muslims are the most likely people to be able to provide critical information on the potential terrorist activities of radical Muslims living in the same country with them.

It should be stated clearly here that there is no coercion involved. Moderate Muslims are appalled by the activities of their radical cousins and see them as a threat to their own peace and well-being. They are natural enemies of the radicals and see the national law enforcement and intelligence personnel and organizations of the countries in which they live as their natural allies – the only organizations that can protect them from the radicals.

All of this requires a relatively benign environment in which moderate Muslims feel comfortable and unthreatened. In a hostile environment, if American personnel are involved, the moderate is faced with a dilemma. Does he support the American who he sees as part of the group creating the hostile environment, or does he support the fellow national and Muslim, regardless of his radical positions? US experience in the Middle East indicates that, as often as not, under these conditions, the radical will be supported over the American.

As long as the moderate Muslim feels comfortable and unthreatened, he will be anti-radical. When that changes, all bets are off. He may be drawn to the radical side simply because they are former co-nationals or co-religionists. At that point even moderates can become dangerous to our country.

How then do we alienate or threaten these moderates? We can indiscriminately single them out as somehow dangerous.We can denigrate them and their religion. We can identify them and expel them from our country. We can refuse them entry, even when they have endangered their own lives by supporting our troops in the Middle East as translators and interpreters. We can refuse entry to all Muslims, including those whom we have already vetted exhaustively and judged not to be threats to America. In short, through executive order and popular harassment, we can make their lives almost unbearable.

In addition, some in America are clearly interested in causing a high level of anxiety in our population when it comes to terrorism. Every act of terrorism carried out anywhere in the world is tweeted and reported extensively in the media. It seems to be working. Even though the likelihood of being injured or killed by a terrorist is miniscule, particularly when compared to automobile, gun or virtually any other kind of death, we hear constantly about vigilance and terrorism. We are being converted to terrorist paranoia.

It would seem safe to say that a combination of terrorist paranoia and the disaffection and alienation of our own Muslim population will have a profound affect on our country. We are already beginning to see indiscriminate anti-Muslim acts taking place around the country, fed by administration actions and negative statements.

The current administration’s stressing of the “growing terrorist threat” and the increasing discomfort of moderate Muslims in America will likely prove important factors in our ability, or lack thereof, to control the level of radical Muslim terrorism here at home. We desperately need those moderates on our side.

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