Archive for the ‘American Foreign Policy’ Category

I have begun writing a new blog entitled, “Adjusting to Change: American Foreign Policy in a Complex World.” Here is the website for it: https://marknkatz.wordpress.com/

I hope that you will read and follow it too. Meanwhile, I will focus this “Travels and Observations” blog more on write-ups from my travels and less on commentary about current events.

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The recently published memoir by former National Security Advisor John Bolton (The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 2020) provides an extraordinarily detailed account. In it, Bolton underscores that there have been three main features in Trump’s approach to foreign policy.  First and foremost is that while Donald Trump is both woefully ignorant about international relations and is largely uninterested in learning about the subject, he is unwilling to defer to expert advice on it.  Second is that Trump does not really value America’s traditional allies, and indeed he often sees the democratically elected ones in particular more as adversaries seeking to take advantage of the United States.  Third, while Trump is concerned about how America’s actual adversaries (including Russia) are acting to America’s detriment, he is firmly convinced that he can make mutually advantageous deals with them—and that they are all eager to do so with him.

Bolton deplores all three of these features in Trump’s foreign policy approach.  I certainly agree with him about the first two.  Presidents need to become deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs since so much of the job requires dealing with this set of issues.  And while presidents should not accept uncritically everything told to them by the foreign policy and intelligence community, they need to recognize and respect the depth of its expertise and have a far more serious reason for rejecting its advice than that their “gut” tells them otherwise, as Trump has all too often done.  In addition, America’s interests are not well served by treating our allies as adversaries.  The world will be a far more difficult place for the U.S. to navigate if democratic governments lose confidence in it.

However, the desire to reach mutually beneficial agreements with America’s adversaries, and convert them into partners or even friends, is not a bad thing.  Further, this is something that previous presidents have done—including Republican ones—and so Trump’s desire to make deals with adversaries is hardly outside the norm of American diplomacy.  But whether or not he should have pursued deals with these particular adversaries (and Bolton is doubtful on this score about most of them), none of Trump’s efforts in this regard have proven to be successful.

Bolton’s account describes Trump’s efforts to “make deals” with six authoritarian adversaries:  Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Islamic leadership, elements of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  There was variation, though, in what each of these attempted deals sought to accomplish.  The deal Trump sought with North Korea was a straightforward trade about Pyongyang’s foregoing nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S. removing economic sanctions.  In Iran’s case, a nuclear deal had already been reached with Tehran by the Obama Administration and five other governments, but Trump withdrew from it and sought a “better deal” over the nuclear issue as well as Iran’s regional behavior in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

The deals Trump sought in Venezuela and Afghanistan, by contrast, related to internal conflict resolution, but in opposite ways.  In Venezuela, Trump sought the negotiated departure of the anti-American president, Nicolas Maduro, through a deal with the leaders of Maduro’s security forces co-opting them to support a transfer of power to the democratic leader, Juan Guaido.  In Afghanistan, by contrast, Trump sought a deal with America’s longtime adversary, the Taliban, in which U.S. forces are reduced and ultimately withdrawn in exchange for this group behaving moderately afterward.

The deal Trump sought with China focused mainly on trade issues, while the one with Russia appeared more a classic great power bargain involving several politico-military issues, but not trade (since there isn’t much between the U.S. and Russia).

In each case, according to Bolton’s account, Trump convinced himself that the top adversary leader or leadership was “dying to do a deal” with him.  Trump even saw his getting tough with them through increased sanctions and other measures as increasing their desire to do so.  Trump also seemed to think that good personal relations with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un in particular would help make this possible.  Much to the disgust of Bolton (a longstanding Iran hawk), Trump repeatedly sought meetings with Iranian leaders, and blamed their unwillingness to meet with him on what he saw as the malign influence of former Senator John Kerry, who had helped negotiate the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord when he was Obama’s Secretary of State.  With regard to Venezuela, Bolton relates how Trump not only had a negative view of the democratic opposition leader Guaido (and of his wife) whom U.S. policy sought to support, he sometimes expressed admiration for Maduro, the authoritarian leader whose departure his administration was seeking.  Bolton also relates with disgust how Trump sought a Camp David meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government leaders whom the Trump Administration had earlier excluded, per the Taliban’s request, from the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha about an American drawdown and withdrawal.

Although he did not say so, what Bolton’s account suggests is that, despite Russian interference in support of Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and Trump’s aversion to criticizing Putin publicly, Trump has not really treated Putin differently than he has America’s other authoritarian adversaries.  Indeed, during the Trump Administration, Washington has increased economic sanctions against Moscow, sent arms to Ukraine, withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, and so far refused to extend the New Strategic Arms Treaty (which expires February 2021)—all of which has displeased Putin.  Yet Trump still seems to think that reaching a deal with him is what Putin wants and needs.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of Trump’s approach to authoritarian adversaries:  pile on sanctions and other negative measure, but offer to come to more moderate terms in face-to-face meetings.  Perhaps this is how Trump conducted his private business dealings before he became president, and so believes that this formula would also work for him as president.  And indeed, some authoritarian leaders (Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and most especially Kim Jong-un) have been willing to flatter Trump as well as meet with him.  In addition, some Taliban leaders and (as Bolton relates) some of Maduro’s top security officials have either met or communicated with Trump administration officials.  The Iranian leadership is the outlier in refusing to do so.  But with the partial exception of a partial trade truce with China (which seems shaky), none of these diplomatic forays by Trump have succeeded.

Why is this?  To begin with, personal chemistry (or Trump’s attempted pursuit of it) with authoritarian leaders may be useful in helping reach a deal, but it is not enough to induce leaders to change their long-held views of what their interests are.  Indeed, they may be bold enough to think that the more personal chemistry they build up with Trump, the more likely it is that they can change his mind about them and their countries.

In addition, while Trump himself prioritizes trade issues, America’s authoritarian adversaries often do not.  Trump, then, may think that piling on economic sanctions should be sufficient to induce rational actors to change their policy in order to get them removed, but authoritarian leaders often have other priorities.  Indeed, for some such as Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollahs in Tehran, the prospect of increased trade and other contacts with the U.S. may actually appear more threatening than beneficial since what they really fear is that the U.S. seeks their downfall through increased societal contact which might more easily lead to “color revolution.”

Further, America’s authoritarian adversaries may have good reason not to take Trump’s tough talk seriously after seeing how (as Bolton ruefully pointed out) when Trump was on the point of retaliating militarily against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone, he suddenly—and with needless publicity—canceled his order to do so.  It is also difficult for them to take Trump’s tough talk seriously when he himself repeatedly raises the prospect of withdrawing U.S. troops from various allied countries in several parts of the world.  In other words, Trump’s talk of withdrawal only shows them that they may not have to make any concessions to Trump to get him to do what they want the U.S. to do anyway.

Finally, given how rudely and disdainfully Trump treats America’s longstanding allies compared to how (relatively) solicitous and accommodating he has been toward America’s adversaries, Trump may unwittingly be giving the latter strong incentive to remain adversaries.  For Trump has given them reason to wonder whether increased cooperation with him will result in his eventually treating his new friends like he does America’s old ones.

Bolton made clear in his memoir that he disagreed with most of Trump’s efforts to make deals with America’s adversaries.  But one does not have to agree with Bolton’s much harsher policy preferences to appreciate how his description of the erratic and idiosyncratic manner in which Trump pursued his hoped for deals with adversaries was self-sabotaging.

Diplomacy is hard enough to succeed at even for those leaders who have a thorough knowledge of international relations.  For those who do not have such knowledge and refuse to take advice from those who do, it is impossible.

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News stories about Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to target U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue, understandably, to excite interest and concern in America and the West.  The Kremlin, the Taliban, and President Trump have all attempted to cast doubt on the veracity of these reports, but none of them appears to be particularly credible sources.  Indeed, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has made it known with increasing specificity that the reports are accurate, and that President Trump received a written briefing on the matter in late February 2020.  Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, though, made clear in his recently published memoir, In the Room Where It Happened, that Trump often ignores both written and oral IC briefings.

Much of the reporting on this story has focused on examining the nefariousness of Russia’s actions and motives as well as the apparent lack of response to them from the Trump Administration.  More attention, though, needs to be paid to the Taliban’s actions and motives.  The Taliban, as is well known, have long been targeting U.S. and Coalition forces as well as Afghan government forces and Afghan civilians.  But there is something odd about this story, as I pointed out in my June 30 article published in Responsible Statecraft, in which I asked, “Why would Russian intelligence go to the trouble of making bounty payments to the Taliban for attacking U.S. and coalition forces when this is something that the Taliban has long shown itself willing and able to do at its own expense? In other words, why pay someone to do something that they are already doing anyway?”

Focusing on the Taliban’s motives is especially important because in the February 2020 agreement that its negotiators signed with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, the Taliban reportedly agreed not to target U.S. and Coalition forces in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 8,000 men in mid-July 2020, and to potentially withdraw from Afghanistan altogether by May 2021.  Presumably, the Taliban would not want to risk Washington calling a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces—not to mention a forceful response against them—by targeting American and Coalition military personnel in Afghanistan after it agreed not to.

Now while the Russian bounty payments to the Taliban may have begun some years ago, it has not yet been revealed whether they continued after the signing of the Khalilzad-Taliban agreement in February.  If the Taliban accepted Russian bounty to target U.S. and Coalition forces after this agreement was made, this would signal that its intentions toward the U.S. are truly hostile and that Washington would be foolish to trust it.

But General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) indicated that he was “not convinced” by intelligence about whether Russian bounty payments to the Taliban actually resulted in American deaths.  “I found it very worrisome.  I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” he stated.  “I just didn’t see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”

This raises an intriguing possibility.  However deplorable, it is perfectly understandable if Taliban accepted Russian bounty payments to target U.S./Coalition forces if they were going to attack them anyway.  General McKenzie’s statement, however, raises the possibility that the Taliban may have accepted Russian bounty payments to attack Western forces in Afghanistan, but either did not carry out such attacks successfully or did not make them at all.  In other words:  the Taliban may have lied to the Russians in order to get money from them.

What the truth actually is remains murky.  But while many in the West might think that the possibility of the Taliban cheating the Russians is too good to be true, there are those in Moscow who might worry that it is too true to be good—at least for Russia.

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There has been tremendous press coverage about what former National Security Advisor John Bolton had to say about President Trump and other top administration officials in his recently published memoir, The Room Where It Happened.  Bolton’s book, though, also offers insights into the thinking of many others, including numerous foreign leaders.  Especially fascinating is Bolton’s account of his June 27, 2018 meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed (among numerous other subjects) the Iranian role in Syria.

In response to Bolton’s statement of the Trump Administration’s desire to see Iranian forces withdraw from Syria, Putin asked Bolton, “Who would accomplish that?”  Putin then told Bolton to convey the following points to Trump (pp. 130-31):

–Moscow did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria, and there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there;

–Iran’s policy agenda with regard to Lebanon and the Shi’a were not the same as Moscow’s, and in fact, Iranian policy was causing problems both for Russia and the Assad regime;

–But while Russia wanted to see an Iranian withdrawal from Syria, Putin could not ensure that this would happen;

–And if Iranian forces did withdraw from Syria, there would be “large-scale aggression” against Assad regime forces;

–And Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones;

–Putin, though, did want a U.S.-Russian agreement on their respective military dispositions in Syria;

–Putin warned that up to 5,000 “locals” near where U.S. forces were at Al Tanf were actually ISIS fighters who would “ostensibly” follow U.S. direction, but then betray Washington when doing so suited them;

–These Syrian opposition forces were not reliable allies for the U.S., and could not be trusted;

–Instead, the U.S. should support the (Russian-led) peace process in Syria.

There are several observations that can be made from this set of statements which Putin made to Trump.

First of all, there appears to be a logical inconsistency in them.  Putin’s statement that Russia did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria and that there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there is directly contradicted by the later statements about how if Iranian forces withdrew, Assad regime forces would come under attack that Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones.  Iranian forces remaining in Syria, then, clearly do have some utility for Russia.  For Putin, the level of effort Iran is making to defend the Assad regime is not one that he wants Russia wants to undertake.

Second, whatever the merits of Iranian forces remaining in Syria, Putin seemed quite clear that Russia was not in a position to get them to withdraw.  And for Putin, there would be no benefit in attempting something that was bound to fail. Indeed, if Putin believed that Bolton understood this to be the case, then the Russian president may have suspected that Bolton was urging Russia to move against the Iranians in Syria not because he thought Moscow could succeed at this, but because the U.S. thought that the attempt would bring about a worsening of Russian-Iranian relations.  This might be in Washington’s interests, but not Moscow’s.

Third, if and when Assad’s opponents were ever completely defeated, then the differences between Russia and Iran in Syria might come to the fore.  Putin’s call for the U.S. to support the Russian-led Syrian peace process seemed to suggest that the best way for the U.S. to limit, if not remove, Iranian influence in Syria would be for Washington to cooperate with Moscow.

Bolton response to this last point of Putin’s was, “I said our priorities were to destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces.”

This exchange revealed not just a difference in policy, but in how to analyze the situation.  Bolton’s statement suggested that he thought it was possible to remove both ISIS and Iranian forces from Syria.  Putin’s statements, by contrast, indicated that at present, the only way to weaken ISIS was for Iran to remain in Syria, whereas ISIS and other jihadists would only grow stronger in Syria if Iran withdrew.  In other words, Bolton’s preference—“destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces”—were mutually incompatible goals if they were being pursued simultaneously.

Putin’s support for the Assad regime in Syria is appalling.  But his July 2018 comments to Bolton indicate that Putin may have a more accurate assessment of what Russia can and cannot accomplish in Syria than the Trump Administration has about what the U.S. can do there.

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President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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I’ve been waiting for years now for one of Condoleezza Rice’s biographers to interview me about her, but so far none of them has.  Well, I’m not going to wait any longer.  I’m going to reveal everything I know.

I must admit, though, that I don’t actually have all that much to reveal.  Those hoping for salacious gossip, then, can stop reading this right now.  I’ll just relate what little I do know about her.

We met in the summer of 1977 at the State Department in Washington, D.C.  She and I—along with two other graduate students—had been selected for summer internships in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.  I can’t remember the names of the other two interns—both male—but I do remember that one had just finished his first year at Cornell Law School while the other had just completed his first year at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

I had just finished my first year at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).  Condi, by contrast, had already earned an M.A. and had spent two years in the Ph.D. program at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of International Studies.  Thus, although we were all about the same age (indeed, Condi and I were born just three days apart), she was definitely senior to us.

We four interns spent quite a lot of time together that summer.  I remember that we regularly met for lunch in the State Department cafeteria (which was not nearly as nice then as it is now) where we would earnestly discuss the issues of the day among ourselves, other interns, and (if we were lucky) career State Department employees from the various offices we worked in.  Sometimes we would go to the official State Department press briefing (which, we soon learned, was a lot less exciting to see live than as snippets on the nightly news).

We also spent a lot of time together because the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs arranged briefings for us with each of its many component offices.  In addition, there were lots of other seminars outside our Bureau that we attended.  These attracted a much larger audience of State Department employees and interns.  (There were many other interns at State besides us that summer, but we four felt special because our Bureau was one of the very few that actually paid its interns.)

The four of us would sometimes meet on evenings and weekends too—again, for more earnest conversation about foreign policy issues.  I forget all the places we went to together.  Once, though, Condi and the other two interns came to a party I threw for my SAIS friends at the Georgetown townhouse where I was housesitting.

But all this, I hear you saying impatiently, is not what you want to know.  “What was she like?” is the question you are interested in.  Well, I recall her as being intelligent, serious, conservative, and religious, but also as being funny and just a little quirky.  She once declared that she had adopted the city of Cincinnati, and sang its praises to us.  I was surprised that she knew so much about football (whereas I think she was surprised that I knew so little about it).  She was especially enthusiastic about the music of Stevie Wonder.

There are two episodes about her from that summer that stand out in my memory.  The first came relatively soon after we four interns started at State.  Two of us (including me) were assigned to Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (which we soon learned to refer to by its State Department organizational code:  CU) offices in the Main State Department building.  Another was assigned to the CU Legal Affairs office in a State Annex building across the Potomac in Rosslyn, VA.  Condi was assigned to CU/Arts, which was located in a State Annex building a couple of blocks north of Main State.

I remember going over there once to see her.  She was not happy.  Where she sat was dark and stuffy (due, perhaps, to this building’s managers being more zealous than those at Main State about enforcing the newly arrived Carter Administration’s insistence on saving money through minimizing the use of air conditioning and electricity).  She was also much less interested in the subject matter of this office than in Soviet and East European affairs (we figured that they had put her in CU/Arts for no better reason than that she played the piano).  And she wanted to be where the action was in Main State, and not this awful little Annex.

A few days later, a triumphant Condi announced to her fellow CU interns that she had arranged to be transferred from CU/Arts to CU/EE (Eastern Europe) in Main State, just across the hall from me in CU/EA (East Asia).  We were amazed.  It never even occurred to me that any of us could ask for a transfer and actually receive one.  I realized from this episode that not only was she ambitious, but that she also had the ability to achieve her ambitions—a sign of things to come!

The second episode occurred later on that summer.  The four of us—along with what appeared to be hundreds of others—attended an in-house address by the Deputy Secretary of State, Warren Christopher.  I recall that Condi and I were sitting next to each other toward the back of the room.  During the question-and-answer session after his talk, Condi and I were among the dozens of people who raised their hands over and over again in what seemed to be the increasingly forlorn hope that the Deputy Secretary would call on one of us to pose a question.  Finally—and I believe it was for the last question of the session—he called upon her (and not me).

I cannot recall anything about what she asked or what he answered.  But years later, it occurred to me that their exchange had been a conversation between two future Secretaries of State (Christopher would serve in this capacity for President Clinton).

And I couldn’t help but wonder:  If he had called upon me instead of her, would history have been different?

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I spent almost two years from the latter part of 1979 to the latter part of 1981 writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Soviet military thinking about conflict in the Third World during the Brezhnev era. A revised version of the dissertation was published in 1982 as a book (my first!): The Third World in Soviet Military Thought.

Because this was a topic of great importance at the time, my book received a fair amount of attention when it first came out. After Gorbachev began the Soviet withdrawal from the Third World, however, the subject of this book became less important. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union as well as the Yeltsin-era retreat from engagement in the Third World, the book became largely irrelevant for understanding ongoing international relations.

Putin, of course, has pursued a more active foreign policy toward what used to be known as the Third World, but not really a more active military one. To my amazement, though, a paperback version of The Third World in Soviet Military Thought was published in June 2013. However, with a list price of $44.95, I don’t anticipate that there will be many who will buy and read it.

But I did. It seemed like a journey back to a distant time. The book focuses on subjects that were of importance to Soviet military thinkers then. Many of these—such as the categorization of wars in ideological terms (including wars between imperialism and socialism, civil wars between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, wars between bourgeois states, national liberation wars)—now appear quaint and irrelevant for understanding today’s (and perhaps even yesterday’s) world.

There was, however, one theme discussed back then by Soviet military thinkers that impressed me as being highly relevant for understanding certain conflicts now—especially the one in Syria. Some of the Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers were making a genuine effort to accurately understand the new types of conflict that were then occurring. One of these they termed: wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction. What they understood about these conflicts between a dictatorial regime and its opponents was that they were not conflicts between two parties, but among three. Here’s what I wrote in my book’s conclusion about the implications of their envisioning these conflicts in this way:

“In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction…[b]oth communists and non-communists united to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (dictatorship of the proletariat or republican democracy). The communists in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the non-communists fighting the dictatorship. However…the communists stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while the United States is supporting the dictatorship, the Soviet Union will support the communists, making them stronger compared to the non-communist opposition….When the dictatorship eventually falls, the communists are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from the USSR and its allies while the non-communists have received nothing…. Either of these could come to power, and so Soviet support of the communists increases the communists’ chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the non-communist opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the Soviets can take advantage of.” (pp. 129-30)

While re-reading what I had written over thirty years ago, it struck me that the same logic—with updated terms—could be used for understanding the current conflict in Syria: In wars between the people and a regime of extreme reaction, both radicals and moderates unite to fight the dictatorship, with each group hoping later to establish its preferred form of government (radical Islamist rule or some form of democracy). The radicals in such a civil war may well initially be a relatively small and weak group compared to the moderates fighting the dictatorship. However, the radicals stand a good chance of eventually coming to power despite their initially weak position. For while some external forces are supporting the dictatorship, others will support the radicals, making them stronger compared to the moderate opposition. When the dictatorship eventually falls, the radicals are often in a position to take power since they have received outside support from their allies while the moderates have received nothing. Either of these could come to power, and so external support of the radicals increases their chances of actually doing so. The Americans, of course, also have the opportunity of supporting the moderate opposition, but because of the rigidity of American thinking, the U.S. does not do this. This is an error that the radicals can take advantage of.

There are, of course, some important differences between the conflicts that Soviet military thinkers were describing back in the 1970s and Syria now. Back then, it was the U.S. supporting regimes of extreme reaction whereas now it is Russia and Iran who are doing so. Also back then, it was the Soviets and their allies who were supporting the radical opposition whereas now it is Sunnis outside Syria that are doing so. But both then and now, the U.S. did or is doing little or nothing to support the moderate opposition.

There are other similarities between then and now: the U.S. was and is reticent to support the moderates for fear that they may actually be radicals. External radical forces, by contrast, always seem able to distinguish between their allies and rivals within the internal opposition fighting against the dictatorship.

Studying what Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers had to say about conflicts between the people and a regime of extreme actions has lessons that both Washington and Moscow would do well to heed.

For Washington: If external support goes to the radical opposition but not to the moderate opposition, then the radical opposition will be in a stronger position to take power after the dictatorship falls.

For Moscow: Supporting regimes of extreme reaction is a losing proposition since (as Brezhnev era Soviet military thinkers clearly understood) they are “doomed to failure.”

And for both: Moscow’s support for a regime doomed to failure and America’s unwillingness to support the moderate opposition in Syria only increases the likelihood that it is the radical opposition that will eventually prevail there.

Finally, I cannot help but note: since at least part of this 1982 book of mine does seem to be useful for understanding the present, surely it was prescient of my publisher to bring it out in paperback now!

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Far from being on the verge of collapse as many in the West and the Arab World had hoped, it now appears that the Assad regime in Syria has gained the upper hand against its internal opponents.  With Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese Shi’a movement Hezbollah all strongly backing Assad while the opposition is only receiving mainly light arms from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, perhaps this was inevitable.  The European Union allowed its arms embargo on Syria to lapse and could now aid the Syrian opposition, but it seems unlikely that any European government will do so unless the U.S. takes the lead.

So far, though, the Obama Administration has refused to provide the Syrian opposition with anything but non-lethal support.  Considering that the Assad regime is a brutal dictatorship based on Syria’s Alawite minority which has long oppressed the majority of the population, is virulently anti-Israeli and anti-Western, and is a close ally of Iran’s, it would seem that actively supporting the Syrian opposition’s efforts to bring about the downfall of the regime would be in the interests of America, its allies, the majority of Syrians, and humanity in general.  Why, then, has Obama not done so?

It may be that President Obama’s approach toward Syria is guided by a cautious logic that includes the following elements:  First, Obama wishes to avoid the possibility of getting the U.S. mired in a long, inconclusive, and costly military conflict in Syria such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama, after all, did not withdraw American forces from Iraq and arrange for their withdrawal by the end of 2014 from Afghanistan just to send them into a similar situation in Syria.

Second, while the Assad regime is indeed truly awful, it is not clear that its downfall will lead to the rise of anything better.  Indeed, Sunni radicals appear to be playing an increasingly dominant role within the fractured Syrian opposition.  The Obama Administration understandably wants to avoid undertaking any action that leads to the replacement of the Assad dictatorship with a radical Sunni one.

Third, while it is unfortunate that Russia is backing Assad so strongly, the Obama Administration has good reasons to avoid offending Moscow over Syria.  With the souring of Pakistani-American relations as well as continued instability inside Pakistan, the U.S. is highly dependent on cooperation from Russia in order to safely extract American troops and equipment from Afghanistan via the Northern Distribution Network.  Further, the Obama Administration still hopes to persuade Moscow to more fully join in Western-sponsored efforts to induce Iran to halt its worrisome nuclear efforts.  Russian-American differences over Syria are simply not as important as the need for Russian-American cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, as well as the need for Russian-American cooperation more generally.

Yet while it is a cautious logic such as the one outlined here that may underlie Obama’s unwillingness to get the U.S. involved in Syria, it is also possible that his decision-making is informed by a more Machiavellian logic which includes considerations such as:

First, even if the Assad regime is now doing better vis-à-vis its opponents than previously, it is probably not going to be able to vanquish them completely.  Continued support from Moscow and Tehran to Damascus will not only increase Sunni Arab and Muslim hostility toward Russia and Iran, but also be a continuous drain on the resources of these two American adversaries.  It is better for the U.S. that Russian and Iranian resources be expended in Syria, and not America’s.

Second, while there may have been past instances in which the Shi’a fundamentalist Iranian government and the Sunni radical Al Qaeda (or its affiliates) have cooperated against the U.S. in the past, in Syria they are on opposite sides.  Iran has sent both men and materiel in support of the Assad regime.  The Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front is one of the most effective groups fighting against Assad.  America and its allies benefit from the fact that Iran and the Al Nusra Front are at cross purposes in Syria.  This conflict between them also increases the prospects that Iran and Al Qaeda-linked groups will be in conflict elsewhere.

Third, the broader Sunni-Shi’a division over Syria has already yielded some important positive results.  Sunni Arab public opinion, which once lauded the Lebanese Shi’a movement Hezbollah for opposing Israel, now reviles it for supporting Assad.  The Arab League (consisting mainly of predominantly Sunni-led governments) has recently condemned Hezbollah for supporting Assad.  Similarly, Iran has dramatically cut back its funding for the predominantly Sunni Palestinian opposition movement, Hamas, because of the latter’s support for the Syrian opposition.  Both of these developments benefit America and its allies.

Finally, the shale revolution in North America means that the U.S. will become much less dependent on petroleum supplies from the Middle East.  To the extent that the U.S. and Canada can export their non-traditional petroleum resources or America’s allies in Europe and elsewhere develop their own, then they too will be less dependent on the Middle East.  There will, thus, simply be less need for the U.S. to concern itself as much with events in this turbulent region in the future than there was during the past several decades.  In fact, if turbulence in the Middle East leads to higher petroleum prices, this will hasten the development of more expensive North American petroleum resources that the previous availability of relatively cheap-to-produce Middle Eastern oil has done much to prevent.

What is interesting about the cautious and the Machiavellian foreign policy logics vis-à-vis Syria outlined here is that they are by no means mutually exclusive—especially regarding the question of American intervention or greater involvement.  While the cautious logic seeks to avoid the problems that could arise from greater American involvement in Syria, the Machiavellian one seeks to exploit the problems that Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda  are experiencing (or are likely to) as a result of their involvement there.

Could it be, then, that the Obama Administration is pursuing both the cautious and the Machiavellian logics toward Syria simultaneously?  Is Obama’s avowal of a cautious foreign policy toward Syria merely a cover for the pursuit of a more Machiavellian one that he does not want to acknowledge publicly?

This seems highly unlikely.  Obama’s aversion to intervention appears to be something deep-rooted.  The problems resulting from America’s involvement in Vietnam taught him at a young age that military intervention is highly problematic.  Iraq and Afghanistan only served to confirm this view.  And while Obama did countenance American participation in the multilateral intervention in Libya in 2011, the limits he placed on American involvement at the time showed just how uncomfortable he was with this operation.  Further, the messiness of the post-Qaddafi Libyan political scene may have only raised doubts in his mind about whether any better outcome would occur in Syria if America took steps to bring down the Assad regime there.

Obama, then, probably believes in the efficacy of the cautious foreign policy logic vis-à-vis Syria, and is highly likely to continue pursuing it.  His doing so, however increases the risk that the minority Alawite dictatorship remains in power in much (if not all) of Syria and wreaks brutal retaliation upon the Sunni majority; the Sunni majority blames America and the West for not helping them when they could have, and so falls increasingly under the sway of radical groups linked to Al Qaeda; and Sunni-Shi’ite conflict intensifies in and spreads to other countries of the region.

If this is what Obama’s pursuit of a cautious foreign policy logic toward Syria leads to, then the next American president may have to pursue the Machiavellian logic of playing on differences among America’s adversaries in the region while working to end American and Western dependence on Middle Eastern petroleum not because he or she wants to, but because these will be the best of the bad options remaining for American foreign policy in this region.

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The Bush Administration’s decisions to intervene first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq have proven to be highly costly ventures.  Many lives have been lost and disrupted, much property has been damaged, and vast resources have been expended.  Despite this effort, neither country has been stabilized, much less democratized.  Further, America’s image was badly tarnished, and relations with other countries—even close allies—were negatively impacted.

Thus, the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw American forces first from Iraq (completed at the end of 2011) and then from Afghanistan (to be completed by the end of 2014) have been popular both at home and abroad.

But despite the popularity of the Obama Administration’s decisions to withdraw—and despite the unlikelihood that a Romney Administration would be willing or able to reverse them—these withdrawals are not going to bring about a happy resolution to the conflict situations in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

Indeed, the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan cannot help but remind those of us old enough to remember what happened after the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina.  American forces completed their withdrawal at the beginning of 1973—and communist forces took over South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos just over two years later in the spring of 1975.

And as much as we abhorred the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the withdrawal of Soviet forces over the course of 1988-89 that was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992 and the rise of the Taliban in 1996 does not bode well for what might happen following the departure of Western forces at the end of 2014.  Indeed, it is entirely possible that the Taliban or a similar group could again overrun Afghanistan.

As for Iraq:  it was surely not the intention of the Bush Administration to put into office there a government that would become friends with American’s adversary, Iran.  Yet that is exactly what has happened.

So what do we do now?  Indeed, can we do anything at all to prevent disaster short of massive re-intervention—which, of course, would also be disastrous?

I would like to suggest that there are policy options between massive intervention on the one hand and doing nothing on the other, and that these “in-between” options might be better suited both for advancing long-term American interests as well as promoting security in the region.  Understanding what these options are, though, requires an understanding of two things:  1) what is it that we are afraid of? and 2) what factors are likely to continue or arise in the region as the U.S. withdraws from the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts that the U.S. can work with either to prevent that which we fear from occurring, or mitigate it if we can’t?

Describing what we fear is easy.  In Afghanistan, it’s the return to power of a vengeful Taliban regime (or a reasonable facsimile) bent on supporting Al Qaeda and other jihadist movements.  In Iraq, it’s the prospect of seeing that everything we did there has only succeeded in installing a pro-Iranian regime in Baghdad which will work with Tehran to undermine America’s oil rich but militarily weak Sunni allies in the Gulf—as many see the ongoing Shi’a unrest in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province as evidence of.

There are, though, three tendencies that the U.S. can take advantage of to prevent or mitigate these negative scenarios.

The first is that regional rivalries will continue whether the U.S. stays or goes.  Even after the departure of U.S. forces, then, neighboring countries will act to oppose the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan or the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq.  The U.S. can support these efforts.

The second is the tendency for those whom we oppose to overplay their hand once they think they have beaten us, behave in an authoritarian manner whenever they have the opportunity to do so, and thus alienate the people of their own country as well as neighboring ones—whom we and our allies can help.

The third is the tendency for radical forces opposed to the U.S. to also oppose one another—especially when, once again, they think that American power is on the decline.  When the opportunity arises, the U.S. can exploit these rivalries—but only if it recognizes opportunities to do so when they arise.

Taking advantage of these three tendencies is the theory, if you will, advanced in my book, “Leaving without Losing.”  But can the U.S. do this in the specific cases of Afghanistan and Iraq?

Let’s start first with Afghanistan.  As noted earlier, what we fear here is that the U.S. withdrawal will be followed by the return to power of the Taliban or a similar group.  But there are others who fear this too:  India, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics.  Indeed, all these actors may be more highly motivated than the U.S. to prevent the return of a Pakistani-backed Islamist regime to Afghanistan.  The U.S. can do much to help them in this.  At the very least, we should not hinder them.

In addition, the Taliban established a strong record of misrule during its first period in power from 1996 to 2001.  Unlike before the first time they overran most of the country, then, Afghans are under no illusion now about what their rule will be like if they take over again.  The Haqqani Network—a more vicious as well as more pro-Pakistani group—are even more feared.  The prospect of groups such as these coming to power should provide a powerful incentive to Afghans to oppose them.  Even after withdrawing its own forces, then, the U.S. can—and should—continue to assist those Afghans willing to resist them to do so.

Now some might ask, “If Afghan government forces are doing so poorly against the Taliban while U.S. forces are still in Afghanistan, how can they be expected to resist them once the U.S. leaves?”  The model those who ask this undoubtedly have in mind is Indochina four decades ago when the U.S. withdrawal in early 1973 was followed by the downfall of the governments it was protecting in the spring of 1975, or even when the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 was followed by the downfall of the Marxist regime there in 1992.

But this sequence of events is not inevitable.  The withdrawal of foreign forces fighting an insurgency is not always followed by the downfall of the government they were protecting.  In some cases, the government being protected has actually survived the withdrawal of the foreign forces and brought an end to the conflict with its internal opponents.  This happened in North Yemen following the withdrawal of Egyptian forces in 1967 and in Angola following the withdrawal of Cuban forces at the end of the Cold War.  Other examples could be cited.  The key thing to keep in mind is that—despite how unflattering to them this might be—the presence of foreign protectors often negatively affects the legitimacy of the governments they were sent to protect.  The withdrawal of the foreign forces, then, can actually increase the legitimacy of beleaguered governments—especially when they can point out how it is their opponents who are the ones linked to foreign governments (as the Taliban is with Pakistan).

Finally, we already know that relations between the Taliban and its Pakistani supporters are fraught with difficulty.  As the U.S. withdrawal proceeds, the more likely it is that these differences will increase.  This may provide opportunities for the U.S. to exploit.  One could be arranging for an internal Afghan settlement that includes the Taliban and thus liberates it from dependence on Pakistan.  Or, if the Afghan Taliban (which has gotten help from Pakistan) gives aid and support to the Pakistani Taliban (which opposes the Pakistani government), the Pakistani government may finally realize that supporting radical Islamists is not in its interests and seek American assistance against them.  Whether either of these situations will arise is unclear.  But we can’t take advantage of them if we refuse to acknowledge that they are possible.

Let’s turn next to Iraq.  Even with the U.S. having withdrawn, there are others in the region seeking to prevent Iran from gaining influence in Iraq and beyond.  These states include Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other oil rich monarchies.  Israel shares this interest with them.  The U.S. can help them in these efforts.

In addition, the democratically elected Arab Shi’a-dominated government of Prime Minister Maleki that the U.S. intervention made possible has not just made friends with Iran, but has been ruling in an increasingly autocratic manner.  The U.S. intervention, though, also benefited the Kurdish minority in the north and allowed it to establish a regional government, relatively independent from Baghdad, which has established a remarkable degree of stability and prosperity in this area.  Continued American support for this de facto Kurdish state serves American interests through enabling a people strongly motivated to keep both Tehran’s and Baghdad’s ambitions in check to do so successfully.

Another accomplishment of the U.S. occupation of Iraq was how relations between the U.S. armed forces on the one hand and the Sunni Arab minority on the other went from extremely hostile to very good (thanks, in part, to Al Qaeda in Iraq’s bad behavior).  What the U.S. did not succeed at, however, is reconciling the Shi’a Arab majority with the Sunni Arab minority (or the Kurdish minority).  And since the completion of the U.S. withdrawal, the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government’s behavior toward the Sunni minority has become increasingly oppressive.  What this means, of course, is that (like the Kurds), the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is also strongly motivated to keep Baghdad’s and Tehran’s ambitions in check.

We must not, though, just write off the Iraqi Shi’a.  They are divided among themselves.  What this means is that if Maleki or other leaders lean toward Iran, at least some of their Shi’a rivals are likely to seek American support.  More importantly, it must not be forgotten that Iraq and Iran have historically been rivals.  Just because Iraq has gone from being ruled by a Sunni minority regime to being ruled by a Shi’a majority one may not change this.  The division between Arab and Persian appears to be much stronger than the common tie of Shi’ism—as the Iranian government’s failure to spark a revolt by the Iraqi Shi’as against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War showed.  Further, the Iraqi Shi’a ayatollahs do not accept the authority of Iran’s Supreme Leader.  If and when differences between Baghdad and Tehran emerge, this will provide an opportunity for Washington.

What all this means, though, is that dealing with Iraq will be tricky.  The more that the U.S. and its allies support the Kurdish and Arab Sunni minorities, the less likely that the Arab Shi’a government in Baghdad will move away from Tehran.  But the more that the U.S. and its allies support the government in Baghdad, the more likely it is to feel that it can treat the minorities harshly—thus creating opportunities for groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Thus, whatever else America does in Iraq, its long-term interests would be best served through patiently promoting what would also be in the best interests of all Iraqis:  the establishment of a true federal democracy that keeps Iraq united, but respects the autonomy of its principal communities.  Unless and until they are all on board with this, however, it is not going to come into being—but their differences will allow the U.S. room for maneuver against any which ally with Iran.

The foreign policy approach I am proposing here for the U.S. to pursue toward Iraq and Afghanistan after withdrawing from them is—I freely admit—not big and bold.  Nor do I apologize for this.  It was the Bush Administration’s big and bold foreign policy approach toward Afghanistan and Iraq, after all, which got us into the mess we’re now in.  But this is not the first time we’ve been in such a mess.  It was a similar big and bold foreign policy approach that got us into a similar situation in Indochina which we also ended up extricating ourselves from through withdrawal.  And then when America went to the other extreme of being completely unwilling to intervene afterward because we wanted “no more Vietnams,” the Marxists took advantage of this to seize power in several more (what were then known as) Third World countries during the 1970s.

Back then, though, the U.S. adopted a three-part foreign policy approach, similar to the one I’m advocating here, of exploiting the opportunities provided by regional rivalries, the opposition generated by our adversaries’ authoritarian rule, and the seemingly inevitable hostility that arises within the ranks of radicals.  And it was this prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach that contributed to a dramatic change from an overextended America being taken advantage of by its adversaries in the late 1960s and the 1970s to a seemingly weakened America being able to take advantage of its Marxist adversaries’ overextension in the 1980s.

In the wake of the U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, I feel confident that the adoption of the prudent and pragmatic foreign policy approach outlined here will also prove more successful than the extremes of massive intervention on the one hand doing nothing on the other.

This is a slightly revised version of a speech I gave at the World Affairs Council of Northern California in San Francisco on August 16, 2012.

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