Divining Trump’s Military Strategies

A big question about President Trump is whether he will live up to promises to pull back from military interventionism or will find military adventures a way to boost his popularity, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Now that Donald Trump has assumed power, we will start to see demonstrations of how futile it was to have tried to project a direction of his policy, including foreign and security policy, on the basis of his tweets, blurts, and campaign speeches. Of course, such projection is what those of us in the commentariat normally do, but this is not a normal president.

Anticipation of the direction of policy ordinarily can be discussed in terms of grand strategies and schools of thought, but not so with Trump. With most presidents, attracting crowds and support and votes in a campaign is a gauntlet that must be run to serve the nation in its highest office. With Trump, attracting the crowds and support is what it’s all about.

A good take on what makes the new president tick, and what this does or does not mean for protecting the nation’s interests during the next four years, is an interview with three Trump biographers (Gwenda Blair, Michael D’Antonio and Tim O’Brien) in Politico. The biographers agreed that there has been no indication Trump can separate the interests of the country from personal pique.

As O’Brien put it, “The whole thing has been a vanity show … He’s been unable to find a clean division between his own emotional needs and his own insecurities and simply being a healthy, strategically committed leader who wants to parse through good policy options and a wide series of public statements about the direction in which he’ll take the country.”

Whatever will be the Trump foreign policy will not be a function of liberalism, realism, neoconservatism, isolationism, or any of the other isms with which foreign policies customarily are associated. It will be a function of narcissism.

Lest there had been any idea that Trump finally would leave the campaign mode once he took office, he dispelled that idea in his first 20 minutes as president with his carnage-filled, it’s-midnight-in-America inaugural address.

And if any such idea persisted into his first full day in office, he further dispelled it with an appearance at CIA headquarters, in which he touched only briefly on the mission and contributions of the agency he was visiting and otherwise delivered a typical Trumpian stream-of-consciousness about the size of his support and how great his appointments were. Standing in front of the agency’s memorial wall that honors officers who have died in the line of duty, Trump did not focus on the significance of that place but instead was intent on criticizing the media for allegedly downplaying the size of the crowd at the inauguration event the previous day.

It evidently is a matter of special sensitivity for him — and more important to him than recognizing those who have made sacrifices in service to their country — that his crowd was smaller than for Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and also much smaller than the women’s march in Washington that was taking place as he was speaking and that itself was only one of numerous parallel demonstrations across the country.

A Gruesome Picture

The grim and gruesome picture that President Trump painted in his inaugural speech is far removed from reality, not only regarding the economy but also regarding subjects such as crime, which is less of a problem now than in most previous decades. The economy is, of course, in far better shape than it was when Mr. Obama took office eight years ago.

The false darkness of Mr. Trump’s picture of the state of the nation can play either of two different ways for him in the years ahead. One possibility is that even if reality stays more or less the same as it is now, he can contrast future reality with his own negative picture of today and claim credit for improvement regardless of whether any such improvement occurred or not.

But the other possibility is that his artificially dark picture of today raises all the more people’s expectations of improvement, and regardless of his claims it may be difficult for him to persuade people that things actually have improved. It is harder for statistics, on matters such as wages, to lie as easily as it is for politicians to do so. And individual Americans can feel directly whether their own lots have improved or not.

Such inflated expectations are one ingredient in possible big drops in Trump’s support. Another is the incongruity between his own promises and some of the policies he has suggested, involving such things as how a trade war would affect the cost of living and how upper-bracket tax reductions would see the working class fall farther behind. Yet another ingredient is the natural business cycle, bearing in mind that right now the stock market is near record highs and unemployment is as low as it has been in nearly a decade.

There is a long history of political leaders, especially demagogic ones, who face weakening domestic support looking to foreign adventures to divert attention from problems at home, to rally nationalist sentiment, and to reap the benefits of popularity for the leader who is doing the rallying. One thinks, for example, of Benito Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia. He was seen as making Italy great, and he enjoyed a big boost in popularity within Italy.

Containing Discontents

Similar dynamics could come into play with a domestically beleaguered Donald Trump. Trump’s comments during the campaign suggesting a less interventionist orientation than previous administrations were just like many other of his campaign comments in appealing to discontents of the moment. He was especially trying to capitalize on dissatisfaction with the disastrous Iraq War, going so far as to lie about his own purported opposition to the invasion of Iraq.

His comments that sounded like an intention to retrench were no more part of a carefully constructed worldview or grand strategy than are any other things he has said. Other comments of his seem to go in a different direction, such as his promise to “bomb the s*** out of” ISIS.

If one is to hang larger conclusions on fragments of Trump’s speeches, one might also consider some other lines in the inaugural address. There was the one alleging “a very sad depletion of our military,” notwithstanding that the United States spends more on its military than the next six largest armed forces in the world combined. If President Trump and the Republican majority in Congress really were to devote still more resources to the military, voices both inside and outside the administration are bound to start asking the Madeleine Albright question, “What’s the point of having this superb military if we can’t use it?”

There also was the promise regarding “radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the earth.” That is an impossible promise to fulfill, and so there always will be some target bearing that label to go after.

Right now all of this is speculation. But so has been projection of a less interventionist future based on the tweets and blurts and campaign speeches. What actually transpires will depend not only on the vicissitudes of presidential narcissism but also on interplay yet to develop between the President and his most influential subordinates.

Those commentators who have been repelled by the hegemonic inclinations of the Washington consensus or by the hawkishness of Mr. Trump’s general election opponent and who have hope for fewer foreign misadventures may be in for some unpleasant surprises.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

Russia’s Leery Reaction to President Trump

Russian leaders remain leery about prospects for improved U.S. relations despite the inauguration of President Trump, doubting that he can overcome the political pressures from Washington’s “deep state,” says Gilbert Doctorow.

By Gilbert Doctorow

Contradicting the U.S. mainstream media’s expectations, the reaction of Official Russia towards Donald Trump’s inauguration has been quite muted. To be sure, there was no Women’s March down the streets of Moscow to protest Trump’s accession to power, but neither were there fireworks celebrating the installation of Moscow’s “Manchurian Candidate” who will do the Kremlin’s bidding, the bitterly partisan narrative fabricated by the neoconservatives and liberal hawks who dominate Official Washington.

On Friday, as a guest on a top-rated Moscow talk show, I noted that the microphone was offered much more to the other American on the panel who represented the Russo-phobic point of view that your average Russian television viewer loves to hate on this and other talk shows produced by the country’s leading broadcasters: Pervy Kanal, Rossiya-1-Vesti 24 and NTV.

Afterwards, I was reassured by Russian political analysts that the fact that I got much less time to present a more nuanced view wasn’t meant as a personal snub. It was because I’m known to support Trump’s goal of more constructive relations between Washington and Moscow. In other words, the major Russian TV outlets prefer to have on Americans who are eager to bash Russia, presumably because that’s better for ratings but also fits with the Kremlin’s desire to lower the expectations of the Russian people.

The Kremlin’s communications office has the final word on what gets aired for domestic consumption and it is very hesitant to take a stand on the likelihood of a thaw in relations with Washington under Trump. Up to now, the Kremlin was skeptical that Trump was serious in his pronouncements of readiness for improved relations; now they are skeptical that he can prevail over America’s “deep state” and deliver the goods of détente.

There’s another factor in the Kremlin’s caution about possible warmer relations with the Trump administration. It is a persistent feature of Russian national character over centuries for there to be a surge of patriotic emotions and rally round the flag when the country comes under external threat. That tradition kicked in following America’s imposition of economic sanctions and application of heavy military pressure on Russia’s borders as punishment for Russia’s absorption of Crimea and assistance to the insurgency in the Ukraine’s southeastern provinces of Donbas.

President Vladimir Putin’s personal approval ratings shot up from the mid-60’s to the 85 percent level, where they stand today, largely on the crest  of the patriotic wave of emotion and popular understanding that he and his administration are effectively defending Russian national interests, whatever the failings on the economy, on corruption and on political reform. However, this popularity is fragile and could suddenly collapse if President Putin were to be seen to sacrifice the defense assets of the nation by bargaining them away in deals that are not perceived as fool-proof and as ensuring equal if not better returns for the Russian side.

It was this consideration that dictated Putin’s prudence in responding to Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s peace offensive during Putin’s visit to Japan last December. Giving up sovereignty over any of the Kurile Islands is one of the red lines that Putin cannot cross lest he lose face domestically. Similarly, the Kremlin has to tread very carefully when responding to any olive branch from Washington.

Yet, Russia is carefully reading the signals from Trump, such as his suggestion at a press conference a week ago that the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions would hinge more on progress in curbing the nuclear arms race than on implementation of the Minsk Accords relating to Ukraine’s rebel provinces, provisions that really depend more on Kiev’s sincerity than on Moscow’s.

Trump’s suggestion added some substance to his promise to put America First when it comes to U.S. national security, rather than letting the desires of “allies” control Washington’s actions. Specifically, Trump’s foreign policy focus is expected to be the triangular relationship between the world’s most powerful military forces: Russia, China and the United States. Other countries will be of secondary importance. In effect, the tail will stop wagging the dog. The anti-Russian coalition of the Baltic States, Poland and Ukraine will no longer be allowed to poison U.S.-Russian relations.

Trump’s suggestion on nuclear arms reduction also was not a spur-of-the-moment aside. It clearly came from his top current, if unofficial advisers on foreign policy, namely former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former Sen. Sam Nunn, who was present at the start of the Senate confirmation hearings of Rex Tillerson for the post of Secretary of State.

Kremlin Skepticism

But the suggestion turned out to be a non-starter for the Kremlin. Initial indications of surprise and skepticism by Russian officials quickly turned into a flat rejection by Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov during an interview with the BBC this weekend. Russia knows well that its conventional armed forces are still no match for NATO, that its nuclear deterrent is its great leveler, and it absolutely refuses to reduce its nuclear arsenal until there are substantial changes in the European and global defense architecture that make any reduction in its nuclear arsenal possible.

Thus, the Kremlin is withholding its seal of approval on the incoming Trump administration and is managing the Russian mass media accordingly. The latest poll of Russian public opinion towards prospects for changed relations with Trump’s America just released by the news agency RIA Novosti shows that the Kremlin’s caution has been effectively conveyed to the people.

The question posed on Jan. 20 was: Do you expect changed relations between Russia and the U.S. following the inauguration of Trump? Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63.1 percent) said there will be changes, but it is still not clear in which direction; 19.8 percent said no, most likely the new administration will continue the previous course; and only 17.1 percent said yes, the President-elect spoke repeatedly of his desire for cooperation with Moscow.

In this context, I have no complaints against the producers of the Pervy Kanal talk show who invited me but then gave me little opportunity to speak. However, far beyond the experience of my visit, the evidence suggests that improving relations with Russia will require considerable creativity and persistence on the part of U.S. policy makers.

Meanwhile, the expectations of the American business community for improved relations are very high. In a meeting on Friday morning with the president of the largest association of U.S. corporations doing business in Russia, I was told that its Board expects the sectoral sanctions on Russia to be lifted quickly and no later than within one year. This optimism is founded on the primary attention that Trump gives to removing obstacles standing in the way of American businesses generally, removing the heavy hand of Washington from their operations domestically and abroad.

But the sanctions have been highly politicized and their removal, assuming proper metrics justifying such action can be agreed with the Russians, will come at a heavy cost in political capital for Trump. The U.S. mainstream media will surely cite such a move as proof of the unsubstantiated allegations that Trump is Putin’s “puppet,” as Hillary Clinton claimed during the final presidential debate.

Moreover, there are other things Trump could do, entirely within his powers as Commander-in-Chief and independent from Congress, that would dramatically lessen tensions with Russia and build confidence for future improved relations in all directions. Specifically, he could cease U.S. and NATO military exercises along Russian borders, remove the U.S. brigades introduced in Poland in the past few weeks and start dismantling U.S. bases surrounding Russia’s frontiers.

In today’s hyper-sensitive Moscow, which is literally gun-shy of America, the distance between micro-events, like my treatment a couple of days ago on Russian television, and macro-developments, like improving bilateral relations, is very small indeed.

Gilbert Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.

The Zionist Record on Refugees

Historically, Zionists have put the interests of Israel over the humanitarian plight of refugees, even in the face of Nazi Germany and now in shying away from offending President Trump, writes Lawrence Davidson.

By Lawrence Davidson

It is a strange story. American Jews (and I expect it is the case with other Jews too) act in solidarity with other discriminated groups only if they, the Jews, resist Zionist leadership. If they follow the Zionist lead, they usually do one of two things: passively support the discriminatory majority or stay silent. This behavior is particularly true when it comes to the issue of immigrants.

I can see the eye-rolling and disgust on the faces of the Zionists who might be reading this analysis. Their reaction is to be expected because it is based on a self-image built on ideology rather than on honest knowledge of their own history. When we look at that history, we see that U.S. Zionist organizations have always played to the prejudices of the power brokers. The results, in terms of ethics and values, have been deplorable.

Here is a telling historical example. In the years leading up to the U.S. entrance into World War II, there was a general consensus on the issue of immigration. Most of the U.S. population was opposed to letting immigrants, most of whom were refugees, into the country. David Schoenbaum tells us in his book The U.S. and the State of Israel that in 1938, the same year as the Nazi pogrom known as Kristallnacht, 83 percent of respondents of a U.S. poll said they opposed any adjustment of immigration laws to allow in more European refugees. A year later, a bill to admit 20,000 mostly Jewish refugee children, above the existing minimal quota, failed in both the House and the Senate.

In part, this anti-immigrant attitude was the result of a Great Depression-era frame of mind that assumed that, even as war loomed on the horizon, unemployment was a permanent problem. And, in addition, the opposition to immigration was a reflection of traditional racism against any peoples whose origins were not the same as the U.S. middle and upper classes – mostly English and northern European.

For American Jews, the immigration of refugees was a particularly important issue. After all, Hitler ruled Germany and he was imprisoning and killing all the Jews he could get his hands on. As a result, much of Europe’s Jewish population was scared and ready to leave. However, often the problem was not getting out of the country oppressing you, but finding a safer country to get into.

Under the circumstances, one would assume that American Zionist organizations and leaders would be strongly lobbying Congress for greater refugee access to the U.S. However, as Gulie Ne’eman Arad tells us in the book America, Its Jews, and the Rise of Nazism, they were not. Typical of their attitude was a statement made by the Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise during a Congressional hearing in 1939: “I have heard no sane person propose any departure from the existing [immigration] law now in force.” A self-damning statement if there ever was one.

Along the same lines it is to be noted that a year earlier, in 1938, the Zionist leader in Palestine, David Ben Gurion, had, according to the historian Benny Morris in his book Righteous Victims, declared that “if I knew it was possible to save all [Jewish] children in Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to Eretz-Yisrael [Palestine], I would choose the latter.”

Why was this the Zionist attitude? The reason offered at the time by American Zionists like Rabbi Wise was that an influx of Jewish refugees would spark an upsurge in anti-Semitism in the U.S. – a pitiful excuse in the case of not allowing entry to an additional 20,000 Jewish children. However this assertion was really a cover for a more ideologically dictated position. The Zionists did not want Europe’s Jewish refugees coming to the U.S. They wanted them to go to British-controlled Palestine.

However, the British had severely limited immigration into Palestine so as to maintain the support of Arabs for the Allied war effort against Germany and Italy. So what did Wise and his fellow U.S. Zionists do? They refused to engage in any attempt to support American immigration reform, and instead agitated in Congress and the press for pressure on the British to change Palestine’s immigration restrictions. They did this even though it at once cut off a viable American refuge for European Jews and threatened to complicate the British war effort in the Middle East.

The Immigration Issue Today

Fast-forwarding to the present, we see that immigration and refugees are again major issues for the U.S. Today it is not Europeans, Jews or otherwise, fleeing from fascist oppression. Rather, it is Mexican immigrants crossing the country’s southern border in an effort to escape the poverty and violence of their homeland. It is also peoples of Arab ethnicity fleeing from wars that were often started or prolonged by the United States.

In the U.S. we now have a president, Donald Trump, who was elected on an anti-immigrant platform reflecting a bigoted outlook reminiscent of the 1930s. Trump wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border as well as to ban entry into the country of people of certain religious and/or national backgrounds.

Reaction to Trump’s bigotry has divided the American Jewish community. Organizations of progressive Jewish activists such as If Not Now (which puts itself forward as a “Jewish resistance” movement) and the Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (which allies with local Muslims to oppose discrimination and hate), along with a number of Jewish Democratic politicians, have vocally rejected the President’s position on immigrants, refugees and Muslims.

But the reaction of the Zionist organizations has mostly been true to their history. For instance, Morton Klein, head of the Zionist Organization of America, opposes the entrance of Syrian refugees “until we have a better vetting system.” One suspects this is an excuse because the present system is in fact, exhaustive.

Now consider the more general position taken by the influential Abe Foxman, the “director emeritus” of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman labels active resistance to Trump’s regressive policies, as well as any criticism of the positions taken by American Zionist organizations, as “nonsense.” Despite the fact that he and other Jewish leaders know that Trump “legitimized some of the ugliness,” Foxman wants to “enlist” the President in the fight against bigotry. He concludes that to “resist him and fight him is immature.” A similar position toward official bigotry was taken by Stephen Wise and the American Zionists in 1930s.

The safety and concerns of American Jews as regards bigotry and hate are not the primary interest of Zionist leaders like Klein and Foxman. Indeed, to the extent that such fears increase support for and dependence on Israel, these concerns are actually viewed as helpful. Nor do the Zionist organizations have any interest in opposing the U.S. government except on the command of the Israeli government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has great regard for Donald Trump and high hopes that now the U.S. government will put a final seal of approval on Israel’s own bigoted treatment of the Palestinians and illegal absorption of the West Bank. So the American Zionist organizations are not going to actively oppose Trump and will pressure other Jews to either support him or to stay silent.

The truth is that the Zionists have been eroding away the humanistic aspects of Jewish values for decades – casting them aside in favor of worst sort of “identity politics.” As a consequence official Judaism, taking its marching orders from people like Wise and Foxman and Klein has remained stuck in an ethically deplorable rut.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism. He blogs at


America’s Putin Derangement Syndrome

Exclusive: The mainstream U.S. media blames Russian President Putin for pretty much everything – from the Mideast mess to Europe’s disorder to the U.S. elections – but the reality is quite different, notes Daniel Lazare.

By Daniel Lazare

Last week as Donald Trump was preparing to take office, The New York Times — reeling from Trump’s interview in which he said he didn’t “really care” if the European Union holds together and described NATO as “obsolete” — declared that “the big winner” of the change in U.S. presidents was Vladimir Putin.

Why? Because Putin “has been working assiduously not just to delegitimize American democracy by interfering with the election but to destabilize Europe and weaken if not destroy NATO, which he blames for the Soviet Union’s collapse.” And based on what Trump has been saying about the alliance and the E.U., it appears that, as of noon on Friday, Putin has a co-thinker in the White House.

The Times may be right about Putin coming out on top, but its bill of indictment against him is over the top. The Russian president is not working to delegitimize America democracy – the U.S. is doing the job just fine on its own – and he’s not destabilizing Europe either since the forces undermining the E.U. are essentially generated by the West (traceable to the austerity medicine administered after the 2008 financial collapse and to the refugee flows created  by the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and the “regime change” project in Syria, none of which were initiated by Putin).

But the Times is entirely correct in pointing out that Putin is now riding high. He has a friend in Washington, he’s calling the shots in the Middle East, and it looks like he’ll soon be in a position to hammer out a rapprochement with Europe. So the big question facing the world is: how did he do it?

The answer is not by blackmailing Trump, hacking the Democratic National Committee, or any other such nonsense put out by disappointed Clintonites. Rather, Putin prevailed through a combination of skill and luck. He played his cards well. But he also had the good fortune of having an opponent who played his own hand extremely poorly. Russia won because America lost.

Years from now, as historians gather to discuss the great U.S. foreign-policy debacles of the early Twenty-first Century, they’ll have much to debate – the role of oil, Zionism and Islam; the destabilizing effects of the 2008 financial meltdown; and so forth. But one thing they’ll agree on will be the impact of hubris.

The U.S. emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall as history’s first “hyperpower,” a country whose military strength dwarfed that of the rest of the world combined. It celebrated by engaging in a series of jolly little wars in Panama, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf that seemed to confirm its invincibility. But then it made the mistake of invading Afghanistan and Iraq and found itself in serious trouble.

What Went Wrong?

Historians of the future will also no doubt agree that Obama might have averted catastrophe if he had decisively broken with Washington’s pro-war foreign-policy establishment. Plainly, a change of course was urgent if catastrophe was to be avoided. But the more realistic among them will note that any such correction would have been both difficult and disruptive. It would have meant abandoning some allies and hammering out new relationships with others, changes that would have elicited howls of protest from Washington to Riyadh.

So Obama, an ardent compromiser by nature, decided to fine-tune the existing policy instead by shifting from the direct military intervention of the George W. Bush era to more indirect means. This was an understandable reaction to the excesses of the previous administration, but it only made matters worse.

Exhibit A is Syria, the great bleeding wound in the side of the Middle East. After calling on Bashar al-Assad to step down in August 2011, Obama could conceivably have followed up by sending in hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to throw out the Baathists and install a pro-American regime in their place. None of Washington’s allies would have objected.

But since any such adventure was unthinkable in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, he opted for something more oblique. He ordered the CIA to begin working in secret to support the anti-Assad forces and sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to persuade such “Friends of Syria” as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to back up the insurgency with money and arms.

Most of the foreign policy establishment agreed. After all, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms were of one mind that Assad should go, as were the intelligence agencies back home in Washington. As long-time Syria watcher Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma observed, the Assad government had long been in America’s crosshairs:

“Syria … had been an enemy since opposing the United States’ decision to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Thus, Washington supported several coup d’états in Syria beginning in 1949. When successive coup attempts in 1956 and 1957 failed, Damascus veered squarely into Moscow’s sphere of influence, never to come out of it. Syria’s military is entirely armed and trained by Russia. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syria since the 1970s. For its part, Syria has consistently supported America’s enemies: Hezbollah, Palestinian groups, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. To add insult to injury, Assad actively opposed America’s occupation of Iraq.”

Digging Deeper

Yet the more the Obama administration tried to make its strategy work, the more it fell prey to a fatal contradiction. The reason was simple. Obama claimed to favor a democratic solution, yet the people he counted on to impose it, i.e. the Gulf kingdoms, are the most autocratic states on earth. The more money and aid they channeled to the opposition, therefore, the more undemocratic it became.

Although the White House continued to cling to the myth of a “moderate” insurgency, it soon became obvious that the worst barbarians – bigoted Sunni fundamentalists, head-chopping “Takfiris,” even outright cannibals – were in control.

Warning flares went up but were ignored. In August 2012, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reported that the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and assorted Salafists were “the major forces driving the insurgency” and that their aim was to foment an anti-Shi‘ite sectarian war and establish a “Salafist principality in Eastern Syria,” the same area where Islamic State would establish its caliphate two years later. Yet the administration refused to adjust its strategy.

In October 2014, Vice President Joe Biden complained in a talk at Harvard that America’s Gulf allies “were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war” that “they poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of military weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.” (Quote starts at 53:25.)

Obama’s response was to order him to telephone various Gulf leaders and apologize for telling the truth.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks to pro-rebel Syrian exiles last September were even more revealing. In the course of a 30-minute meeting at the United Nations, he volunteered that the U.S. goal was not to combat Islamic State as had been long claimed. Rather, it was to use ISIS (also known as ISIL and Daesh) to put pressure on Assad and force him to accede to a pro-U.S. government.  Referring to Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria in November 2015, Kerry said:

“The reason Russia came in is because ISIL was getting stronger. Daesh was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth, and that’s why Russia came in, because they didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength, and we thought Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage [and] that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got … Putin in to support him. So it’s truly complicated.” (Quote starts at 26:10.)

Using the Terrorists 

The remarks, the subject of a misleading New York Times article by Anne Barnard and a smart analysis by longtime U.N. correspondent Joe Lauria, sums up all that was self-defeating about the Obama administration’s strategy. While the U.S. claimed to oppose ISIS, it was in fact happy to use it as a lever to pry Assad from power.

While the official line was that Russia only intervened to prop up Assad, Kerry freely admitted that the chief reason was to prevent ISIS from marching into Damascus. One could reasonably conclude from Kerry’s comments that Russia was more interested in combatting Islamic State than the U.S. was (although the opposite claim was often made by the Times and other mainstream news outlets).

Somehow Kerry had gotten it into his head that after pummeling Assad to the floor, ISIS would then politely step aside to allow pro-U.S. moderates to take over. The idea is every bit as delusional as George W. Bush’s belief in 2003 that he could romp into Iraq with 380,000 troops, smash things up a bit, and then go home, confident that a compliant pro-U.S. regime would maintain order in his absence. Rather than acceding to Kerry’s request, ISIS would no doubt have told him to get lost and taken power itself.

If so, the consequences would have caused even the most sang-froid realists to shudder in fear. “Were ISIS to have ensconced itself in Damascus,” observes Landis, “Lebanon would surely have fallen and Jordan would’ve been up against it.”

Saudi Arabia, already the sick man of the Middle East, would also have come under threat. Instead of a million refugees streaming toward Europe, there would have been five or ten times that number. Is this really what Obama wanted? It’s hard to believe, yet that’s precisely what his policies were leading to.

Although Obama predicted that Putin would find himself in a Vietnam-style “quagmire,” Putin was careful to limit the operation and avoid making promises he couldn’t keep. Even The New York Times was impressed by Putin’s calculated actions.

The climax came some 14 months later when Syrian government troops, backed by Russian airpower, finally drove Al Qaeda and its supporters out of their East Aleppo stronghold. Recognizing that the writing was on the wall, Turkey effectively switched sides, patching up relations with Moscow and engaging in joint bombing forays against rebel forces inside Syria. The Kurds, reliant on U.S. backing, were left dangling in the wind. So were the pseudo-moderates of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army.

Why Putin Won

This is why Putin came out on top: not because he’s a latter-day Svengali manipulating candidates and overturning elections, but because U.S. policy was leading to disaster and no one else was in a position to clean up the mess. In Kerry’s conversation at the U.N., the Secretary of State conceded that once Putin opted to intercede, there was little the Obama administration could do.

“Instead of negotiating, he [Assad] got … Putin in to support him,” Kerry said in obvious frustration. After stumbling into Russia’s checkmate, the Obama administration could do little but fume from the sidelines.

At a White House press conference a few days after the Russian intervention, a reporter asked why the U.S. had allowed itself to be out-maneuvered. The response, which went on for a good five minutes or so, was pure Obama – charming, humorous, yet almost eerily detached. America is strong, he said: “…we’re the strongest advanced economy in the world … our approval ratings have gone up, we are more active on more international issues and forge international responses on everything from Ebola to countering ISIL.”

But Russia, he continued, is weak: “their economy’s contracting four percent this year. They are isolated in the world community subject to sanctions applied not just by us but by what used to be some of their closest trading partners. Their main allies in the Middle East were Libya and Syria … and those countries are falling apart. And he’s now just had to send in troops and aircraft in order to prop up this regime at the risk of alienating the entire Sunni world.”

In other words, Obama was saying that Russia is a loser; its friends are losers; and it was foolishly plunging into Syria in a last-ditch effort to bolster a loser who was clearly in his death throes. Obama thus ignored his own role in destroying Libya and Syria or provoking a confrontation over the eastern Ukraine. He refused to consider how his own policies were making matters worse and worse or why Putin felt he had no alternative but to step in after all.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Russia is the dominant power in the Middle East at the moment – apart from Israel, that is – while the U.S. is in disarray as a dangerous rightwing buffoon ensconces himself in the White House. The Democrats should take a long hard look in the mirror if they want to know who the real loser is. But they won’t. They prefer to blame Putin and Russia.

Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace).

A Balanced Assessment of Obama

Much commentary on Barack Obama’s presidency has focused on the shortcomings and missed opportunities, but it must be recalled how grim was his inheritance and fierce his opposition, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Most of the end-of-presidency appraisals of Barack Obama’s performance in office have failed to capture the most important aspects of his presidency and what distinguishes it from others. This shortcoming is only partly due to the difficulty of making good judgments about such things without the perspective that only the passage of time can provide — although this difficulty is indeed a significant factor, as suggested by how much general opinion about some past presidents has changed over time.

Appraisals that are inclined to praise Mr. Obama, including ones coming from people associated with his administration, have often taken the form of laundry lists of accomplishments while doing little to capture the more general essence of his approach to public policy. One accomplishment in particular that probably has been invoked so often that the frequency of the invocation has been well out of proportion to its intrinsic significance is the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Appraisals inclined to be critical of Mr. Obama have been coming mainly from two different camps that on most issues disagree strongly with each other. One consists of those on the political right who have opposed President Obama all along and are simply extending their opposition into their retrospective commentary.

The other camp includes progressive realists who express disappointment that Mr. Obama did not do more than he did to extract the United States from wars, to curtail an overextended and overly interventionist foreign policy, and to move more boldly to shake loose from some other costly habits of what had become a Washington consensus. The criticism, from either or both of these camps, has exhibited three major deficiencies, among others.

One is to lose sight of what is practically and politically feasible, and to judge this president against some hypothetical ideal rather than against feasible alternatives. Presidents need to be graded on the curve, because hypothetical ideals are impossible standards for anyone to meet in the real world of political competition and policy-making. Populating the curve are presidents who come before and after, and alternative policies seriously offered — as distinct from vague expressions of dislike for the status quo — during the graded president’s own term.

Art of the Possible

Presidential politics, like other politics, is the art of the possible, and wise presidents pick which battles to wage and where they should allocate limited political resources. In this regard, a theme heard from both of the critical camps is that President Obama did not walk the walk as much as he talked the talk. Too many stated aspirations, in other words, and not enough follow-through accomplishment.

The important distinction that gets lost in this theme is between, on one hand, duplicity in stating objectives without any genuine intention of pursuing them and, on the other hand, laying out a direction and endeavoring to move the needle in that direction even if the president is unable to move it as far as many of his supporters would like. There is little or no evidence of the former in Mr. Obama’s pronouncements and policies; there is plenty of evidence of the latter, including those relating to avoiding costly and damaging overseas expeditions.

A second deficiency of the criticism is to lose sight of the fact that Mr. Obama inherited a miserable situation, at home and abroad, upon entering office — worse than that handed to any of the other several most recent presidents. This included the most severe recession since the Great Depression, one that reached its depth just about when Mr. Obama took the oath of office. It included the effects of the badly mistaken invasion of Iraq, with not only continuous civil war in Iraq itself but also the exacerbation of wider sectarian conflict and stimulation of terrorism, which fed directly into so many of the preoccupying foreign policy problems, especially in the Middle East, that demanded the Obama administration’s attention.

When one must devote most of one’s available strength and attention and political chips to dig out of deep holes, there is that much less left to make positive progress above ground. This sort of handicap needs to figure in a fair evaluation of any president.

A third deficiency is to give insufficient attention to the exceedingly inflexible and strident opposition Mr. Obama faced from the opposite party in Congress, which by his last two years in office included Republican control of both chambers. Again, this goes beyond what any other recent president has faced, although we began to see some of it as Newt Gingrich was converting political competition into ruthless warfare in the 1990s.

Fierce Opposition

Failure to take into account the nature of the opposition has led to baseless charges against Mr. Obama for political dysfunction not of his own making. A self-described anti-Trump conservative, for example, blames Obama for the rise of Trump by saying it was “divisive” for the President to point out instances of the opposition putting party ahead of country — rather than such pointing out being a frank and accurate observation about the problem of divisiveness itself.

Other critics somehow have kept a straight face while adducing the absence of Republican votes in favor of the health care law as supposedly another instance of the President’s divisiveness, rather than this being an indication of the approach of the members who cast the votes.

Part of the background to this, of course, is that the legislation in question was not some Democratic scheme coming out of left field but instead a commercially-based system that was Romneycare before it became Obamacare. A similar situation arose with Congressional Republican refusal even to consider the nomination to the Supreme Court of a well-qualified moderate who could have easily been the nominee of either a Republican or a Democratic president seeking to bridge the gap across the aisle.

All presidents get both more credit and more blame for things that happen during their tenure, many of which are beyond the president’s control or ability to influence. This pattern is certainly prevalent in much of the end-of-term commentary about President Obama. Forgetting what is and is not in the president’s control often leads to misallocation of blame for things not being better. It also leads to loss of perspective regarding standards of success and failure as the situations that presidents must deal with change, for whatever reason, over time.

This is true, for example, of the health of the American economy during the long climb out of the Great Recession. Mr. Obama’s opponent in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, hammered away at the issue of unemployment. Romney promised that if elected he would lower the unemployment rate (then just over eight percent) to six percent, with the message being that this was better than a re-elected Obama would do. The rate as of last month was 4.7 percent.

In foreign policy, three qualities in particular of Mr. Obama’s policy-making stand out, more so than laundry lists, from what came before and what is coming after him, and from much of what opposed him while he was in office.

The first is rigor, thoroughness, and reliance on the best information in the making of policy. As mundane as this may sound, it should not be taken for granted. Astoundingly, the biggest and most consequential decision that Mr. Obama’s predecessor took during his eight years in office — the invasion of Iraq — was taken with no policy process at all to determine whether the invasion was a good idea. Some of the policy-making in the presidency before that (of Bill Clinton) was likened to disorganized graduate seminars.

Foreign Policy Subtleties

Second is the break away from the habitual rigid American Manicheanism that deals with the outside world almost exclusively in terms of friends and foes, purported allies and adversaries, good guys and bad guys, and in terms of coddling the one and confronting the other. President Obama has made significant departures from this misguided and unsuccessful rigidity and has taken steps toward a more flexible and effective foreign policy that recognizes the United States has fish to fry and interests to pursue with every other nation in the world.


Most notable in this regard have been the opening to Cuba and the multilateral agreement to restrict the Iranian nuclear program. Both of these achievements are significant in their own right in ending unsuccessful policies of nothing but confrontation, and they also represent a significant moving of a larger needle.

Third is the overall knowledge and insight that represents a better understanding of how the outside world works, and of the dynamics of conflict within it, than is too often exhibited by the Washington consensus against which Mr. Obama has had to struggle. One of the best pictures of the President’s understanding in this regard was his interview last year with Jeffrey Goldberg.

Two other qualities have distinguished Mr. Obama’s conduct as it relates to both foreign and domestic policy. One is a willingness to take political heat to keep the Republic from getting into trouble. He has not always been consistent in this regard. Mr. Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan, for example, was clearly shaped more by political considerations than by military effectiveness. But his decision to withstand much pressure from multiple directions to “do something” more about Syria has helped keep the United States from getting immersed any more deeply in yet another no-win misadventure.

Finally is Barack Obama’s personal conduct as president, marked by grace and fairness as well as by intelligence. Importantly and related to this, he has exhibited spotless personal integrity and the highest ethical standards — going so far, for example, as to seek a government legal ruling on whether it was permissible for him to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. He has led an eight-year administration with no significant scandals — again, not something to be taken for granted, given modern American history.

As of noon on Jan. 20, the nation is in for a severe turn away from most of the above. Regarding divisiveness, the incoming president has set a record for being the sorest winner ever, never getting out of what was already a highly combative and insult-filled campaign mode. Regarding reliance on good information, the new president rejects not only book-learning but also the assistance of government bureaucracies that exist for the purpose of informing policy decisions.

Regarding the method of decision-making, policy, at least declaratory policy, is as likely to be made with impulsive middle-of-the-night tweets as through any careful review. And as for ethics, the incoming chief executive is a walking bundle of conflicts of interests whose flouting of ethics principles has set so big and bad an example for others in his administration that the whole process of ethics scrutiny and elimination of conflicts of interests seems to be breaking down for senior nominees.

As previously mentioned, we need to grade presidents on the curve. The curve is taking an exceptionally sharp turn downward, and that ought to put Barack Obama in an even more favorable light.

Much of the wider public may be beginning to realize this, as indicated by recent poll results that have seen Mr. Obama’s job approval ratings rise significantly while Donald Trump’s ratings are probably the worst of any incoming president. Barack Obama will be missed.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

How Clinton Defeat Derailed Syrian War

Hawkish think tanks had laid plans for escalating the U.S. “regime change” war in Syria after Hillary Clinton’s expected election, but a different result has forced them to repackage their scheme, says Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

A new coalition of US-based organizations is pushing for a more aggressive U.S. intervention against the Assad regime. But both the war in Syria and politics in the United States have shifted dramatically against this objective.

When it was formed last July, the coalition hoped that a Hillary Clinton administration would pick up its proposals for a more forward stance in support of the anti-Assad armed groups. But with Donald Trump in office instead, the supporters of a U.S. war in Syria now have little or no chance of selling the idea.

One of the ways the group is adjusting to the new political reality is to package its proposal for deeper U.S. military engagement on behalf of U.S.-supported armed groups as part of a plan to counter Al Qaeda, now calling itself Jabhat Fateh al Sham.

But that rationale depends on a highly distorted presentation of the problematic relations between Syria’s supposedly “moderate” rebel groups and Al Qaeda’s Syrian offshoot.

The “Combating al-Qaeda in Syria Strategy Group” was formed last July by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), according to the policy paper distributed at an event at the Atlantic Council on Jan. 12.

The “Strategy Group” also includes Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute and Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War, both of whom have advocated direct U.S. military force against the Syrian regime in support of the armed opposition.

But it was CNAS that had the political clout to bring the coalition together under what appeared to be very favorable circumstances. Michele Flournoy, the founder and CEO of CNAS and a former third-ranking Pentagon official, was reported to be Clinton’s likely choice for Secretary of Defense during the 2016 presidential primaries. And the June 2016 report of a CNAS “study group” co-chaired by Flournoy was in line with Clinton’s openly declared support for a more muscular US intervention in Syria.

That report had called for a U.S.-declared “no bombing zone” to protect armed opposition groups, vetted by the CIA, from Syrian and Russian attacks. Flournoy had then described the policy in an interview as telling the Russian and Syrian governments: “If you bomb the folks we support, we will retaliate using standoff means to destroy [Russian] proxy forces, or, in this case, Syrian assets.”

Expecting a Clinton Victory

The new coalition of think tanks began meeting last summer when the politics in the United States seemed favorable for a political campaign for U.S. military intervention in Syria.

On Sept. 30, Lister published a lengthy essay calling on the United States to provide shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to ”moderate” opposition groups as well as to threaten attacks on the Syrian army if it violated the ceasefire. Lister was obviously hoping that President Clinton would adopt that policy option a few months later.

Now the new strategy group is trying to sell the same proposal to Trump, calling it “a holistic, preventative counter-terrorism policy that empowers moderate Syrians … to overcome extremists in Syria.” It argues that Al Qaeda is seeking to gain control over areas now controlled by “moderate” forces in order to establish “an enduring Sunni extremist order in Syria.”

But the argument that these armed groups, which the U.S. has supported in the past, would be prepared to resist Al Qaeda’s long-term caliphate with more money and arms and U.S. bombing of Assad’s air force, is too divorced from reality to have traction in Washington now. In fact, the so-called “moderate” armed groups have never been truly independent of Al Qaeda in Syria. They have depended on the highly disciplined troops of Al Qaeda and its closest allies and the military strategy devised by Al Qaeda commanders to pressure the Assad regime.

Lister himself has been clear on this point. Under his proposed plan for the United States to use the threat of military force against the regime, the CIA-vetted “moderate” armed opposition groups were not expected to end their military cooperation with Al Qaeda’s Fateh al-Sham or to separate themselves physically from its forces, as had been provided in both the February and September ceasefire agreements.

Lister stated explicitly his assumption that such cooperation was “unlikely to diminish significantly” – even if his proposal were to be carried out. Rather, the idea of Lister’s plan was to force negotiations on the Assad regime. That aim would still obviously have required the continued military power of Fateh al-Sham and its close ally, Ahrar al-Sham, to succeed.

Lister and his fellow coalition members are not likely to be able to sell the new administration on the idea that any of the Syrian armed groups the CIA has supported would even consider seriously resisting Fateh al-Sham under any remotely believable circumstances.

Syrian Army: The Only Alternative?

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently recalled meeting with leaders of Harakat al-Hazm, considered the most promising “moderate” armed group in Syria, at a safehouse in Turkey in late 2014. He found them “despondent” because the United States had just carried out a rare air strike on Al Qaeda operatives believed to be plotting a terrorist attack on the West.

They told Ignatius that, because of the U.S. bombing what was then called the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda would no longer tolerate their own group’s operations. Soon after the meeting, the Nusra Front did indeed eliminate Harakat al-Hazm and appropriate all the TOW missiles and other military equipment the CIA had given them.

The Ignatius account reflects a fundamental reality throughout northern Syria, from 2013 onwards, that was simply ignored in media coverage: all of the opposition groups have been absorbed into an Al Qaeda-controlled political-military order. The idea that the “moderate” groups could be a bulwark against Al Qaeda, which is now being peddled by Lister, Cafarella and CNAS, no longer has any credibility even in those quarters in Washington that were once open to it.

A tell-tale sign of the shift in attitude toward those groups’ mood in Washington is the fact that Ignatius used the past tense in referring to the CIA’s program of arming the “moderate” groups in Syria in his article last month.

The U.S. military leadership was never on board with the policy of relying on those armed groups to advance U.S. interests in Syria in the first place. It recognized that, despite the serious faults of the Assad regime, the Syrian army was the only Syrian institution committed to resisting both Al Qaeda and Islamic State.

It seems likely that the Trump administration will now return to that point as it tries to rebuild a policy from the ashes of the failed policy of the Obama administration.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This article originally appeared at Middle East Eye at http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/syrian-army-only-option-us-if-it-wants-fight-terror-1775504124]

Selectivity in Trashing Trump

Exclusive: Around the United States, massive demonstrations have protested the inauguration of Donald Trump, but there is a danger that the anti-Trump forces could block the positive elements of his message, writes Robert Parry

By Robert Parry

To say that Donald Trump is an imperfect messenger for some reasonable messages doesn’t do justice to the word “imperfect.” But he is right to note that Official Washington has gone far off-track in recent decades and that the Establishment needs shaking up.

For instance, in his Inaugural Address, President Trump made clear that he would break with the orthodoxy of neoconservatism and liberal interventionism that has led to endless wars in the Middle East and a dangerous New Cold War with Russia.

Trump declared: “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example. We will shine for everyone to follow.”

That sentiment reflects a traditional U.S. approach to the world, followed by America’s first presidents who warned against “entangling alliances” and articulated best by President John Quincy Adams who said in 1821 that while America will speak on behalf of liberty, “she has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.

“Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

Over the past several decades – even after the end of the Cold War –American presidents have violated this founding precept as they repeatedly went abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”

These missions – designed and advocated by Washington’s dominant neocons and their liberal-hawk sidekicks – have not only wasted trillions of dollars and cost the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers but the projects have failed to improve national security, have led to massive bloodshed in the targeted countries and have undermined global stability.

No Accountability

Yet, it has been a sign of Official Washington’s disconnect from reality that the architects of these failed endeavors have escaped accountability and indeed have solidified their control over the foreign policy establishment and the mainstream news media.

Despite the bloody fiascos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine and other unfortunate countries where the neocons and liberal hawks have prescribed “regime change,” these esteemed know-it-alls have systematically pushed aside all rivals, including old-school “realists” and peace proponents.

The confirmation gauntlets that have confronted Trump’s nominees for State, Defense and other national security posts have revealed a near-unanimous bipartisanship in favor of a continuation of neocon/liberal-hawk orthodoxy, demanding pugnacious approaches toward Iran, Russia, Syria and China.

So, while there is a great deal to worry about from President Trump and his administration – particularly an apparent hostility toward climate-change science, disdain for minority rights and the embrace of right-wing law-and-order nostrums – there could be a new opening for conflict resolution and a return to traditional diplomacy. Already, there has been a housecleaning at the State Department, where the biographies of some of the most prominent neocons, such as Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, have disappeared.

Trump’s Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson is regarded as a pragmatic businessman who has little patience for the destructive “regime change” strategies of the neocons and liberal hawks. However, because of that and Tillerson’s desire for better relations with Russia, many Democrats and some Republicans appear eager to block his confirmation and force Trump to pick someone more acceptable to the neocon/liberal-hawk foreign policy establishment.

Reasons to Resist

Progressives and Democrats have every right and reason to express revulsion at Trump’s crude remarks about women, Mexicans and others — and to resist Trump if he pursues the failed environmental, economic and domestic policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. But there seems to be an attitude of rejecting everything associated with Trump.

On Friday when I was moving among protesters on the outskirts of Trump’s inauguration, I noticed a large number of signs denouncing Trump’s interest in détente with Russia. There were repeated references to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to the CIA’s unproven claims that Putin approved the release of Democratic emails showing the party hierarchy’s hostility to Sen. Bernie Sanders and revealing the contents of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street and some pay-to-play features of the Clinton Foundation.

This CIA-initiated narrative that Putin somehow rigged the election for Trump has become an accepted wisdom not only in Official Washington but among much of the Democratic Party and within the progressive movement. Little interest is shown toward the lack of evidence provided by the U.S. intelligence community and the dubious reasoning involved, since it would have been a huge gamble for Putin to have interfered in the U.S. election and then faced the likely outcome of an angry President Hillary Clinton seeking revenge once she took office.

There’s also a logical inconsistency in portraying Trump as a Manchurian candidate, since the idea of putting such a secret agent in the White House would involve the person talking tough against Russia during the campaign – to garner political support – rather than declaring publicly a desire for better relations with Russia, a position that was widely viewed as harmful to Trump’s chances.

Trump never hid his interest in avoiding a costly New Cold War with Russia and took a rhetorical beating for it, both during the Republican primaries and during the general election. That would not have been the approach of a true Manchurian candidate.

A Current Danger

But the current danger for Democrats and progressives is that – by bashing everything that Trump says and does – they will further alienate the white working-class voters who became his base and will push away anti-war activists.

There is a risk that the Left will trade places with the Right on the question of war and peace, with Democrats and progressives associating themselves with Hillary Clinton’s support for “endless war” in the Middle East, the political machinations of the CIA, and a New Cold War with Russia, essentially moving into an alliance with the Military (and Intelligence) Industrial Complex.

Many populists already view the national Democrats as elitists disdainful of the working class, promoters of harmful “free trade” deals, and internationalists represented by the billionaires at the glitzy annual confab in Davos, Switzerland.

If — in a rush to demonize and impeach President Trump — Democrats and progressives solidify support for wars of choice in the Middle East, a New Cold War with Russia and a Davos-style elitism, they could further alienate many people who might otherwise be their allies.

In other words, selectivity in opposing and criticizing Trump – where he rightly deserves it – rather than opportunism in rejecting everything that Trump says might make more sense. A movement built entirely on destroying Trump could drop Democrats and progressives into some politically destructive traps.

[For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Neocons: the Anti-Realists” and “Yes, Hillary Clinton Is a Neocon.”]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

Obama Admits Gap in Russian ‘Hack’ Case

The hole in the U.S. intelligence community’s “high confidence” about Russia “hacking” Democratic emails has always been who gave the material to WikiLeaks, as President Obama admitted, notes ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern.

By Ray McGovern

Oops. Did President Barack Obama acknowledge that the extraordinary propaganda campaign to blame Russia for helping Donald Trump become president has a very big hole in it, i.e., that the U.S. intelligence community has no idea how the Democratic emails reached WikiLeaks? For weeks, eloquent obfuscation – expressed with “high confidence” – has been the name of the game, but inadvertent admissions now are dispelling some of the clouds.

Does the Russian government hack, as many other governments do? Of course. Did it hack the emails of the Democratic National Committee? Almost certainly, though it was likely not alone in doing so. In the Internet age, hacking is the bread and butter of intelligence agencies. If Russian intelligence did not do so, this would constitute gross misfeasance, especially since the DNC was such easy pickings and the possibility of gaining important insights into the U.S. government was so high. But that is not the question.

It was WikiLeaks that published the very damaging information, for example, on the DNC’s dirty tricks that marginalized Sen. Bernie Sanders and ensured that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win the Democratic nomination. What remains to be demonstrated is that it was “the Russians” who gave those emails to WikiLeaks. And that is what the U.S. intelligence community doesn’t know.

At President Obama’s Jan. 18 press conference, he admitted as much: “the conclusions of the intelligence community with respect to the Russian hacking were not conclusive as to whether WikiLeaks was witting or not in being the conduit through which we heard about the DNC e-mails that were leaked.” [Emphasis added}

It is necessary to carefully parse Obama’s words since he prides himself in his oratorical constructs. He offered a similarly designed comment at a Dec. 16, 2016 press conference when he said: “based on uniform intelligence assessments, the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC. … the information was in the hands of WikiLeaks.”

Note the disconnect between the confidence about hacking and the stark declarative sentence about the information ending up at WikiLeaks. Obama does not bridge the gap because to do so would represent a bald-faced lie, which some honest intelligence officer might call him on. So, he simply presents the two sides of the chasm – implies a connection – but leaves it to the listener to make the leap.

WikiLeaks Account

As I suggested to RT viewers right after the last press conference, the reason WikiLeaks might have been “not witting” could be that it was quite sure it was not a “conduit” for “hacking” by the Russians or anyone else. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has stated that the Russian government was not the source and it’s significant that President Obama stopped short of contradicting him. It is also clear that WikiLeaks, in the past, has obtained LEAKED information from U.S. whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning.

Former U.K. Ambassador Craig Murray, a close associate of Assange, has made clear that the two separate batches of Democratic emails – one from the DNC and the other from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta – also were leaks from insiders, not hacks from outsiders.

After the Jan. 18 press conference — what Murray called the “Stunning Admission from Obama on Wikileaks” —  Murray wrote:

“In his final press conference, beginning around 8 minutes 30 seconds in, Obama admits that they have no evidence of how WikiLeaks got the DNC material. This undermines the stream of completely evidence-free nonsense that has been emerging from the US intelligence services this last two months, in which a series of suppositions have been strung together to make unfounded assertions that have been repeated again and again in the mainstream media.

“Most crucially of all Obama refers to ‘The DNC emails that were leaked.’ Note ‘leaked’ and not ‘hacked.’ I have been repeating that this was a leak, not a hack, until I am blue in the face. William Binney, former Technical Director of the NSA, has asserted that were it a hack the NSA would be able to give the precise details down to the second it occurred, and it is plain from the reports released they have no such information. Yet the media has persisted with this nonsense ‘Russian hacking’ story.”

So I suppose we should thank Barack Obama for dispelling at least some of the obfuscation at which he is so rhetorically eloquent, while our lame “mainstream” media take steno and regurgitate ad nauseam.

Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington.  He was an Army Infantry/Intelligence officer and CIA analyst for a total of 30 years and now servers on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).

Where Donald Trump Makes Sense

Many progressives so despise Donald Trump that they decry all his positions even those that make some sense, such as questioning NATO and the dangerous New Cold War with Russia, as ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller explains.

By Graham E. Fuller

With the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, it’s hard to know where first to focus attention. Rage and righteous indignation on all sides are mounting. There is more than enough blame to go around for how the U.S. got itself into this situation. Where it will all go from here is beyond the imagination of the most lurid screenwriters of White House dramas.

Whatever the outrage du jour may be, we must not forget that history didn’t begin with the 2015-2016 presidential campaign/circus. To believe that is analytically lazy, an easy cop-out, even self-serving. Major elements of these deep domestic pathologies trace back at a minimum to America’s fateful actions from the very beginning of this disastrous American Twenty-first Century.

It was in 2000 that the Supreme Court, in an act of sheer partisanship, threw the contested Florida election to George W. Bush. This “decision” did two things: it demonstrated that the politicization of the Supreme Court had now touched the very pinnacle of the U.S. political order. The Court’s reputation would never recover from the event.

Second, it enraged many Democrats who felt that the election had been stolen from Al Gore, thereby tainting the presidency of George W. Bush from the outset. Bush’s incompetence, ignorance, and domination by dark neocon forces led us into a series of desperate wars in the Middle East that shaped the region down to this day — the Global War on Terror, the collapse of Iraq, Libya, Yemen, an Afghanistan on the ropes, the creation of ISIS on the smoking ruins of Iraq’s civil struggle and to the beginning of the Syrian agony whose impact has massively shaken even Europe, and pushed the nature of U.S.-Russian relations towards resuscitation of the Cold War.

Unlike other nations that have undergone terrorist cataclysms but succeeded in rising above it, the United States never survived the psychological shock of 9/11. It is still living with it. U.S. obsession with domestic security — in one of the world’s safer environments — even invented a new, Teutonic-sounding word “Homeland” to celebrate the birth of the security state; it also raised the corrosive specter of the “Muslim Other” in our midst.

It was this event that spurred Washington to massively expand the size and number of existing security and intelligence organizations, and create vast multiple layers of new ones. We see how they now compete and stumble around against each other; their very unmanageable size has arguably contributed to an overall deterioration in the quality of U.S. intelligence. A sober grip on the trajectories of world forces seems quite beyond Washington’s ken.

Whatever Donald Trump may think about the CIA — and how legitimate any of his perceptions may or may not be — his dissatisfaction is not entirely out of place; it would be prudent for him to undertake a close, zero-based review of the entire massive and redundant national security structure. More is not better; bigger is not better. The national security structure would be leaner, meaner, and more efficient were it immediately slashed by 50 percent at the outset.

All organizations work hard to preserve their individual corporate fiefdoms; when does a bureaucracy voluntarily ever downsize? Better intelligence is no longer even the real dynamic at work; institutional self-preservation is.

Militarized Foreign Policy

The militarization of American foreign policy grew special wings under the Global War on Terror. It is little wonder that so many of the key senior positions in the Trump cabinet and the White House are now being filled by military men: National Security Advisor, CIA chief, Director of National Intelligence, the NSA, the Secretary of Defense, etc. We narrowly missed a military Secretary of State.

This is not to say that the military cannot produce significant competence at the top, but again the problem with the military — and a military budget that surpasses most of the rest of the world combined — has led to securitization and militarization of foreign policy. Defense trumps State every time. Global threats expand to meet and justify the military budget; military solutions become default approaches to world issues. Where would we be without our threats?

The new national security state has promoted the most dangerous security idea of all — the idea that international security is a zero-sum game; that among great powers everything takes on the character of a win-lose confrontation. Our think tanks earnestly scour the globe for “coming threats.” (I know, I’ve written many of them in my day.)

We cannot contemplate such a thing as a win-win relationship among great powers. Of course the massive resources consumed by the U.S. military (think of the staggering lost opportunity costs) are powerfully backed by the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower presciently warned us about half a century ago.

Now, coming to today’s real third-rail topic: Russia. The obsessive — virtually hysterical — narrative of Russia in U.S. domestic politics today is not really about a true threat to the national security. Russia hasn’t done anything that we don’t routinely do to ourselves (and others). Hacking abounds, it is the new growth industry.

“Blame Russia” instead is a convenient joint project for several unexpected bed-fellows: Clinton Democrats, embittered by Hillary’s defeat, seeking a scapegoat; Democrats who may detest Trump for quite understandable reasons, and seek to fully delegitimize his presidency at any cost and to refuse any constructive cooperation. What better device than to label him a Russian agent. End of discussion.

In addition, we have the military-industrial-security complex viscerally opposed to any kind of rapprochement with Moscow or talks with Putin; it’s simply bad for business. By all means investigate the Russians. But that is not basically why our nation is in a fix.

We are talking of sacred cows here. NATO is perceived as a God-given good in itself. Yet there are plenty of good, rational reasons for rethinking the place of NATO in the world. Try the views of the seasoned, beady-eyed conservative geopolitician George Friedman who does exactly that. Or my more critical blog of last July.

It constitutes neither treason nor ignorance to reconsider these foundations of our future place in a world that no longer resembles that of NATO’s founding. And of course by now NATO has its own priority of deeply-rooted institutional self-preservation at any cost, through promotion of ranges of new missions designed expressly to preserve its role. Serious debate with Europe about what NATO should and should not be is urgently due, but any such rational debate is not to be found in Washington, on this or so many other global strategy issues.

And finally, however emotionally satisfying, where does de-legitimization of the president take us? Rejection of the (highly flawed) electoral system entirely? Good luck at changing it. And who has the right to determine “legitimacy”? Our partisan Supreme Court? Determined citizens? This all represents exceptionally dangerous ground indeed. We’ve been down this de-legitimization route now against George W. Bush and Barack Obama (for differing reasons), and now Trump. It gets uglier with each iteration, but also exceedingly more dangerous to the nation as more and more people join the ranks of “he’s not my president.”

Draining the Swamp?

Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington had some allure during the primaries. The swamp goes back decades. Yet very little draining has yet taken place; instead we have a celebration of plutocracy in power as never before.

Money in politics has simply moved yet one further step up the rung, now foreshadowing a permanent future American corporatist governing structure. This deep, corrosive, bald presence of money in politics has grown by leaps and bounds in this century; no need to go to election 2016 to start bemoaning it.

It is self-deception if we let the coarseness of the Trump image lead us away from the thought that it has ever been much different. And the 90 percent left behind this time will be the chief victims of oppression, poor health, prejudice, discrimination.

The U.S. does not even seem capable of governing itself at this point, and the fault lines are sharpening. The specter of domestic political violence can hardly be excluded in this swirl of personalized politics of black hats and white hats. There is no debate, only vituperation, slander, vilification and demonization.

Drastic failures in U.S. foreign policies going back at least to 2000 have raised ongoing serious doubts in the eyes of the world about U.S. “leadership.” More and more countries, friends and rivals, are moving into damage limitation mode in dealing with us; their main task is to prevent the U.S. from dragging the rest of the world into dangerous confrontation.

Like so many others, I too am deeply disturbed at Trump’s style, manner, impulses, psychology, and policy preferences. Worse perhaps are their translation into dismaying top personnel choices. Trump himself may not be an ideologue but his appointments mostly are.

But don’t let the grossness of the immediate Trump symbol lead us to overlook the degree to which most of this goes back many, many years, and we all had a hand in it in one way or another.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com


Going Over the Top in Trump-Bashing

Democratic Party fury toward President-elect Trump has led some progressives to suggest a rash scheme for invoking an archaic law to punish his deviation from foreign policy orthodoxy, warns Norman Solomon.

By Norman Solomon

Heading into the last week of the Obama administration, 35 Democrats in the House sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch urging her to appoint an independent Special Counsel because Donald Trump “has repeatedly engaged in actions constituting unauthorized foreign policy in violation of the Logan Act.”

Dating back to 1799, the law has resulted in a grand total of one indictment (during Thomas Jefferson’s presidency) and no conviction. But the Logan Act remains a convenient statute to brandish against disruptors of foreign-policy orthodoxies.

The Jan. 12 letter — relying on an arcane and wobbly relic of a law — is an example of opportunism that isn’t even opportune. Worse, it’s an effort to spur Justice Department action that would establish a dangerous precedent.

When the letter charges that “in several cases Mr. Trump’s actions directly contravene and undermine official positions of the United States government,” the complaint rings hollow. In our lifetimes, countless private citizens — and quite a few members of Congress — have sought to contravene and undermine official U.S. positions. Often that has been for the better.

The members of Congress who signed the letter should know that. Many are ostensibly aligned with the kind of dissent that has been — and will be — essential to pull this country away from disastrous wars overseas. More than half of the letter’s signers — 19 of the 35 — are in the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

It should be obvious that the Logan Act is antithetical to free speech and other vital liberties. The law provides for up to three years in prison for “any citizen of the United States” who — without authorization from the U.S. government — “directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government,” with intent to influence that government “in relation to disputes or controversies with the United States.”

Freedom of Speech

Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas, points out that the First and Fifth Amendments “do not look too kindly on either content-based restrictions on speech (which the Logan Act clearly is), or criminal laws that do not clearly articulate the line between lawful and unlawful conduct (which the Logan Act may well not do).”

In recent decades, the specter of the Logan Act has been used to threaten legislators who went outside an administration’s policy boundaries. In 1975, Sens. George McGovern and John Sparkman faced accusations that they’d violated the Act by going to Havana and talking with Cuban officials. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan said that Jesse Jackson’s efforts in Cuba and Nicaragua may have violated the Logan Act.

Later in the 1980s, Reagan’s National Security Council considered invoking the Logan Act to stop House Speaker Jim Wright’s involvement in negotiations between the Sandinista government and the Contra forces that the CIA made possible in Nicaragua. Twenty years later, in 2007, another House speaker — Nancy Pelosi — faced accusations that she’d run afoul of the Logan Act by going to Damascus and negotiating with Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Now, it’s sad to see dozens of Democrats trying to throw the Logan Act at Trump when there are so many crucial matters to address — healthcare, civil rights, environmental protection, social programs and much more. While a multitude of legitimate and profound issues are at hand — with an urgent need to concentrate on blocking the GOP’s legislative agenda — the letter clamoring for a Logan Act investigation of Trump is an instance of counterproductive partisan zeal run amuck.

The idea that a U.S. citizen — whether Donald Trump, Jesse Jackson or anyone else — does not have a right to dialogue with officials of foreign governments is pernicious and undemocratic. We should assert that right, no matter who is in the Oval Office.

While some members of Congress are indignant that Trump’s actions “directly contravene and undermine official positions of the United States government,” the history of U.S. foreign policy warns against automatic deference to official U.S. positions. Citizens have often been wise when they sought to contravene and undermine the U.S. government’s positions.

Today, entrenched forces in Washington remain committed to foreign policies more in line with what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the madness of militarism” than the statecraft of real diplomacy. Citizens should push back against officials at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue who cite the Logan Act as an argument for conformity or use it as a tool for intimidation.

Norman Solomon is co-founder of the online activist group RootsAction.org, which has 750,000 members. He is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. [This article first appeared as an opinion article at The Hill at http://www.thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/the-administration/314917-democrats-need-to-stop-throwing-everything-they-can-at.]