Tag: Russia

Does the White House Have a Syria Strategy?

With the news that the United States has for the second time attacked targets linked to Syria’s Assad regime—in this case a convoy near Western forces in Al Tanf—concerned observers may be worrying that the Trump administration has chosen to make a major change in its Syria strategy. Fear not! As Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters:

“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops…”

Instead, you should probably just fear the fact that the United States no longer seems to have a Syria strategy.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s strategy towards Syria was inconsistent and vague. From the President’s statements early in the Syrian uprising that “Assad must go,” to his infamous red line comment, the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and the decision to intervene against ISIS, it often seemed as though the Obama administration was unsure whether it was willing to accept the Assad regime as part of a Syrian transition or not.

Nonetheless, throughout Obama’s term, the United States took no direct military action against Assad, and—other than arming a small number of rebels early in the conflict—largely ignored the question of Assad’s future, focusing instead on the campaign against ISIS.

With his disinterest in human rights, and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, the Trump administration was initially expected to be more conciliatory towards Assad than Obama. Yet only days after senior U.S. officials publicly stated that the U.S. priority was not to remove Assad, the President fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base.

Yesterday’s attack marks the second such incident. That they don’t constitute an official policy change is in large part because they were apparently authorized by commanders in the field, reflecting Trump’s desire to delegate key military decisionmaking down the chain of command.

Yet in many ways, this highlights the dangers of such delegation: though the strikes may have been necessary to protect American and British Special Forces based near al-Tanf, they carry risks of retaliation for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as the potential for escalation with Syrian regime forces, Iranian-backed militias, or even Russian forces.

Targeting decisions like this, made at the tactical level, are thus deeply worrying. As ISIS continues to decline, military advances will bring both sides closer, raising the potential for conflict that could drag the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Unfortunately, lack of clarity about the Assad regime and allied forces is only one of the important questions that the Trump administration has so far failed to address in Syria. Though the headlines largely focused on the disgraceful behavior of Turkish President Erdogun’s bodyguards in beating up protestors, his D.C. visit last week also yielded no apparent progress on the brewing Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Northern Syria.

Indeed, the Trump administration recently took the decision to directly arm Syria’s Kurdish rebels, one of the most effective forces against ISIS. This was probably the right decision, but strains relations with Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers these groups as terrorists, and is engaged in bombing them.

At the same time, Trump appears to look more favorably on Russian plans for resolving and ending the Syrian conflict than his predecessor, but has taken an openly hostile attitude towards Iran, one of the other signatories of the de-escalation plan, and a major player on the ground in Syria. These two positions cannot be easily reconciled.

Thanks to a recent boost under the new administration, there are now at least a thousand U.S. troops in Syria training and working with ground forces fighting ISIS. It is these troops—and the larger number of U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq—who are most placed at risk by the new administration’s incoherent approach to Syria.

Whether or not the White House realizes it yet, tactical decisions like the one made yesterday by commanders on the ground in Syria risk dragging the United States even further into this complex war. The only way they can avoid it? Develop a coherent Syria strategy. 

The Trump-Russia Connection: Context Is Crucial

The Justice Department’s appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel takes the ongoing investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government to an entirely new level.  If the investigation is to be truly objective and informative, some crucial issues need to be addressed. 

Above all, it is imperative to determine the full context of the Trump-Russia relationship.  The old parable about a group of blind men feeling limited portions of an elephant and reaching erroneous conclusions applies here.  Without context, someone feeling the elephant’s trunk may express unwarranted confidence that it is a thick rope.

One of the issues that must be examined is the extent and nature of the contacts between members of Trump’s election campaign team and Russian officials.  To determine that in a dispassionate manner will not be easy.  An anti-Russia hysteria has reached alarming proportions in the past few months, eerily resembling the McCarthy era in the 1950s.  As I note in a recent article in the American Conservative, there appears to be a concerted effort to make Russia a pariah.  Indeed, at least two House Democrats have voiced objections to any contact whatsoever between the Trump administration and Russian officials.

That attitude is both unrealistic and potentially very dangerous.  Even during the worst days of the Cold War, U.S. leaders never severed communications with Moscow.  In fact, constructive dialogues produced some worthwhile agreements with America’s totalitarian adversary, including the treaty banning atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963.  To adopt an unprecedented, hardline attitude now toward post-Soviet Russia, which is a conventional rather than a totalitarian power, would be irresponsible.

Trump Use of Intelligence Questioned

Intentionally or otherwise, President Trump continues to make headlines, this time involving allegedly highly sensitive information on ISIS that he shared with senior Russian officials during an Oval Office visit. If, as the Washington Post has alleged, that the information was provided by a U.S. ally in the region and that Trump did not seek the ally’s clearance in advance to share the intelligence with the Russians, it represents potential collateral political damage with said ally. Today, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster held a press conference clearly designed as a damage control operation, although by admitting that “the president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from” he only reinforced the image of Trump as impulsive and careless.

One thing that is not in question is Trump’s authority to share the data with the Russians. The real question is whether he should’ve done so. 

Recall that it was the Soviet KGB’s successor organization, the FSB, that gave the CIA and the FBI the tip that the Tsarnaev brothers were terrorist-in-the-making two years before the Boston Marathon Bombing. That episode was the exception to the rule and record of America’s dealings with Russian intelligence services, as one CIA veteran of Russian operations noted earlier this year. Trump has made no secret of the fact that he wants to increase counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Russia, particularly against ISIS. Whether his off-the-cuff intelligence sharing foray with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Kislyak was the right way to do it is highly debatable. That it has at least temporarily focused attention away from a genuine ongoing scandal–the “Russiagate” investigation and the timing of the firing of ousted FBI Director James Comey–is beyond dispute. Trump’s Oval Office antics have given the Russians unearned wins on both issues this week.

NATO Expansion Is Unwise. Saying So Isn’t Treasonous.

Ad hominem has always been a feature of politics, but Senator John McCain (R-AZ) elevated it to a new level earlier this week. The incident occurred when McCain came to the Senate floor to ask for unanimous consent to move forward on a vote formally bringing Montenegro, a small country in the Balkans, into the NATO alliance. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) objected. McCain responded by suggesting Paul was a traitor to his country and accusing him of “working for Vladimir Putin.”

McCain seemed particularly incensed that Paul objected without explaining his reasons. As reported at the Daily Beast:

“I note the senator from Kentucky leaving the floor without justification or any rationale for the action he has just taken. That is really remarkable, that a senator blocking a treaty that is supported by the overwhelming number—perhaps 98, at least, of his colleagues—would come to the floor and object and walk away.”

He then directly connected Paul to the Russian government: “The only conclusion you can draw when he walks away is he has no justification for his objection to having a small nation be part of NATO that is under assault from the Russians.

“So I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

Paul later issued a statement in response:

“Currently, the United States has troops in dozens of countries and is actively fighting in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen (with the occasional drone strike in Pakistan)…In addition, the United States is pledged to defend 28 countries in NATO. It is unwise to expand the monetary and military obligations of the United States given the burden of our $20 trillion debt.”

That seems like a reasonable position to hold, and certainly not one that requires Paul to be a Russian stooge.

Indeed, many of America’s most reputable officials and academics have opposed post-Cold War NATO expansion for substantive reasons. George Kennan, perhaps our most famous Cold War diplomat and widely considered to be the father of the United States’ containment strategy, famously opposed NATO expansion in the 1990s, writing in the New York Times that expanding NATO would be a “fateful error” that would “inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion” and “restore the atmosphere of the cold war to East-West relations.” Like Senator Paul, Kennan also worried about the problems of credibility and overextension. Would McCain accuse Kennan of treason?

Book Forum: The Ukraine Crisis and U.S.-Russian Relations

Nearly three years ago, Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president fled the country’s capital amidst massive anti-government protests. The series of events to follow would alter the geopolitical landscape of post-Soviet Eurasia, destabilize security within the wider region and pose a major challenge for U.S.-Russia relations.

Following an unrecognized referendum in eastern Ukraine, Russia proceeded in its annexation of the Crimean peninsula in a brazen act transgressing the notion of Westphalian sovereignty. The United States and the European Union responded by imposing sanctions on Russia, with debatable efficacy, while two ceasefire agreements have failed to end a protracted and bloody conflict on the ground.

Against this backdrop, the Trump administration has indicated a willingness to lift Russian sanctions in order to improve bilateral relations—a move which would be unpopular in Congress. Simultaneously, there is continued insistence from the United States and Europe that Russia must return control of the Crimea to Ukraine—a stipulation which Russia refuses to consider. Where do U.S.-Russia relations go from here?

Prior to looking into the policy options, an upcoming Book Forum presenting the recently released book Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis and the Ruinous Contest for Post-Soviet Eurasia (Routledge, January 2017) will first examine how U.S.-Russian relations arrived at such a precarious point in the first place.  

The book’s authors, Timothy J. Colton (Morris and Anna Feldberg Professor of Government and Russian Studies, Harvard University) and Samuel Charap (Senior Fellow for Russia and Eurasia, International Institute for Strategic Studies; Former Senior Advisor, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security), argue that a series of grave strategic miscalculations, resulting from years of zero-sum behavior on the parts of both Russia and the United States, have destabilized the post-Soviet Eurasian sphere to the detriment of the West, Russia and the countries caught in the midst. With regional and international security now deteriorated and all parties worse off, Colton and Charap conclude that all governments must commit to patient negotiation aimed at finding mutually acceptable alternatives, rather than policies aimed at securing one-sided advantages.

Please join us for what is sure to be an insightful and comprehensive foray into the roots of the Ukraine crisis during Cato’s Book Forum on March 10th, featuring co-author Samuel Charap with comments provided by Emma Ashford, Cato Institute Research Fellow. You are invited to register for the event here.

Nuclear Apocalypse Likely Farther than Doomsday Clock’s Hands Claim

It’s been a busy time for nuclear weapons-related news—between President Trump’s alleged confusion about and denouncement of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia on Friday, the White House’s subsequent assurances that the president understands the treaty, and North Korea’s missile launch test over the weekend.

The people behind the “Doomsday Clock,” have declared that the world is “two and a half minutes to midnight.” That’s the closest we’ve allegedly been to Armageddon since 1953, when both the U.S. and Soviet Union first possessed thermonuclear weapons.

A graph from HumanProgress.org might help put the current fearful commotion in perspective.

The U.S. has 4,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled and Russia has 4,490, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to arms reduction, as of their latest data update on January 31st of this year. 

What Is Trump’s ‘America First’ Doctrine?

At noon on January 20th, Barack Obama stepped aside, leaving Donald Trump as the leader of the free world. In his inaugural address, Trump pledged to implement an ‘America First’ doctrine. But while the implications for trade and immigration are relatively clear, his speech brought us little closer to understanding what this will mean for foreign policy.

Indeed, thanks to the incoherence of the president-elect’s foreign policy remarks during his campaign, the range of potential outcomes is wide. But Trump’s past comments suggest four potential paths that his ‘America First’ Doctrine could take.

The first option is true isolationism. Though it remained unclear throughout the campaign the extent to which Trump truly understood the historical baggage that came with the term ‘America First,’ many commentators assumed that he would indeed pursue a classic isolationist policy. And Trump seems to mean it literally in some cases: only a week into office, he has already sought to erect trade and immigration barriers. He may also seek to withdraw from the world in military terms, abandoning alliances, and refusing to engage in even the diplomatic resolution of international problems which don’t directly concern the United States.

Yet elements of Trump’s own statements call this assumption into question. From his insistence on increased military spending to his promise in the inaugural address to eradicate radical Islamic terrorism ‘completely from the face of the Earth,’ Trump has repeatedly implied that he is likely to pursue a relatively hawkish foreign policy.

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