In Dealing with North Korea, Trump Needs Allies

President Donald Trump holds a rally with supporters at an arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 21, 2017.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has defiance in his blood. It’s said his grandfather once asked what would happen if the United States defeated North Korea in war, to which his father answered: “If we lose, I will be sure to destroy the Earth. What good is the Earth without North Korea?”

President Trump has decided to confront what’s probably the most reckless, risk-taking regime on the planet. His hope for a diplomatic solution depends on convincing North Korea and China that he’s ready for the “fire and fury” of nuclear war should negotiations fail. If Hollywood were pitching the story, it would be “The Art of the Deal” meets “Dr. Strangelove.”

A careful look at the details of US military and diplomatic planning shows why this confrontation would be so delicate and dangerous. Despite Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric this week, the path ahead is really about finesse: Both the military and diplomatic paths require close cooperation with regional partners. The United States can’t go it alone in Korea, in either war or peace. The danger is that Trump’s rhetoric could destabilize partners more than adversaries.

Robert Work, a deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration who stayed on and just left the Pentagon, explains: “A preemptive war to protect our homeland from future attack is an option, but the major risks would be borne by South Korea and Japan, which face the threat of missile attacks today.”

Let’s start by examining the military option. “OPLAN 5027,” as it’s known, is a compendium of logistical details, but the basic premise is simple: The United States would fight alongside South Korea to gain control of the peninsula, and the Pentagon would need nearly two months to transport needed soldiers and equipment.

This protracted prep period would be a time of nuclear brinkmanship. If Trump decides that negotiations aren’t likely to succeed, he would presumably start moving materiel and troops from the United States, Europe and the Middle East. The cargo manifest would include armed drones, counter-battery artillery, communications and intelligence gear, scores of planes and many thousands of troops. The military calls it the “time-phased force and deployment List,” or TPFDL.

All the while, as the United States conducts this 45-to-60-day buildup, Seoul and its 10 million residents would be vulnerable to a preemptive North Korean attack. What would Pyongyang do as the assault force gathers? Bargain, or strike?

Significant civilian casualties would be inescapable if war comes. North Korea has thousands of artillery tubes just across the Demilitarized Zone. If attacked or threatened with decapitation, the regime could launch a barrage. The Pentagon estimates that on the first day, North Korea could fire up to 100,000 rocket and artillery rounds.

To protect the estimated 300,000 American civilians in Seoul from this artillery inferno, the Pentagon plans to stage “noncombatant evacuation operations.” Organizing planes and ships for so many people would be a nightmare, as would the chaos among those left behind. Analysts estimate that an additional 1 million non-Koreans may live in the country, including many Chinese. How would they get out? China might help in an evacuation, but at what political price?

The United States could try a lightning strike to preempt a North Korean attack, perhaps using cyber and other exotic weapons. But the Pentagon cautions policymakers that there isn’t a way to guarantee that North Korea couldn’t launch a nuclear missile in response to such an attack. It would be a cosmic roll of the dice.

What about diplomatic options, if war is so scary? The Trump administration has been working for months to encourage China to help broker negotiations. To woo Beijing, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pledged that the United States doesn’t seek regime change or collapse in Pyongyang, won’t support any quick Korean reunification and doesn’t want to send US troops north of the 38th parallel. This formula satisfies Beijing’s conditions about the future of the peninsula, and it should assuage some of Kim’s worries, too.

Tillerson, who is driving Korea policy (at least when Trump isn’t tweeting or speaking publicly), told reporters that Kim can demonstrate he’s ready for talks by halting missile tests.

The table is set for negotiations. Sources knowledgeable about China say that party leaders are being briefed at their annual seaside retreat this month about possible tougher moves to squeeze Kim, including a cut in oil deliveries or even a naval blockade.

At a moment that requires subtlety, Trump unwisely amped up his rhetoric once more Thursday, warning the North Koreans of things “they never thought possible.” He talks like the promoter of a WWE wrestling match. But this is real.

The Washington Post

Trump is Right about North Korea


As President Trump nears the threshold of a military crisis with North Korea, he needs to sustain this early intuition — and not be driven into actions that may look tough but would leave every player worse off. The template hasn’t really changed from the Korean War in 1950: North Korea’s aggressive actions bring an American response and then a general war that devastates the Korean Peninsula. The conflict ends in stalemate and at huge cost.

Trump in his first months saw the need for a negotiated halt in North Korea’s program. But he has been pushed toward military options by Kim Jong Un’s reckless continuation of his missile testing — despite China’s efforts to restrain the impulsive young leader. War fever is growing, as in Sen. Lindsey O. Graham’s comment Tuesday that conflict is “inevitable” unless Pyongyang stops testing weapons.

What is wise policy? Even as Trump ratchets up the pressure, he should quietly urge China to take the lead in a diplomatic solution. He should continue to make clear to Beijing that its economic and security interests would be severely harmed if the United States is forced to address the North Korea problem on its own, militarily.

Here’s a suggestion for Beijing: China should invite the other key players — the United States, Japan, South Korea, perhaps Russia — to gather in New York during the UN General Assembly meeting for talks about how to handle the North Korea problem. The model would be the “P5+1” group that sponsored the Iran nuclear talks. China was an observer back then; this time it would be the convener. President Xi Jinping’s global status would be enhanced as he heads toward this fall’s big party congress that will shape his future as president.

Three months ago, Trump was ready for face-to-face diplomacy with Kim, under Chinese sponsorship. He seemed to be packing his bags back on May 1, when he said: “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it.” Ingratiating language aside, that was the right instinct. But now, Trump feels burned that the Chinese couldn’t stop Pyongyang’s missile tests, and the White House wants Xi to take the lead.

There was a tone of personal betrayal in Trump’s tweets last weekend: “I am very disappointed in China . . . they do NOTHING for us with North Korea, just talk.”

Because of Trump’s pique toward Beijing, trade is back on the table. The United States is readying harsh trade sanctions against Chinese steel producers and perhaps against several big Internet companies, too. Sources tell me that a milder trade deal worked out by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross last month was scuttled by the White House, humiliating the Chinese, and Ross too, but sending the message that Trump is serious in demanding China’s help on North Korea as the price of trade flexibility.

The US Pacific Command is readying military options. But Defense Secretary Jim Mattis knows better than anyone that a military conflict would be a catastrophe. A preemptive strike by the United States would risk the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Japanese (and US residents of Seoul), albeit with little risk to the American homeland. That may appeal to some members of Congress, but it would outrage the rest of the world. It would also spin the problem of nuclear proliferation into a lawless zone of unilateral action, harming US interests.

Russia, too, seems willing to be helpful on North Korea, as it was on Iran — because its interests are harmed by an erratic nuclear-weapons state.

Trump has the opportunity for a foreign policy reset in the shadow of the North Korea crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin has overreached and been rebuffed by congressional sanctions. Kim has overreached with his relentless missile testing. Xi has overreached by offering more than he has delivered on curbing Pyongyang.

The world is beginning to worry that Trump could go to war. Maybe that’s the moment when China helps to organize one of those “win-win” solutions that Xi is always talking about.

The Washington Post

The CIA is Entering a Danger Zone


If the ghosts who inhabit the walls of the CIA could talk, they would tell Director Mike Pompeo to be careful. The agency is entering a danger zone where a White House in turmoil wants the CIA to take aggressive action overseas but hasn’t developed the clear strategy or political support needed to sustain it.

Pompeo is an activist, an exuberant politician with a flair for delivering one-liners. He’s a risk taker, who wants the agency to be more aggressive both in collecting information and in using covert action against targets such as North Korea and Iran. This aggressive stance was clear in his remarks last week at the Aspen Security Forum and in other public comments over the past six months.

Pompeo has some big problems that complicate his agenda. He won’t be able to deal with them without a broad, bipartisan base of support. Otherwise, he’s going to run into the same ditch in which the agency has regularly gotten stuck for decades — launching bold (sometimes dubious) programs that eventually deflate like leaky balloons, harming the agency, its workforce and its allies abroad.

Here’s a road map of three dangers ahead, drawn from conversations with a half-dozen CIA veterans who served in Republican and Democratic administrations:

● Intelligence today is politicized, perhaps more than at any time in our history. President Trump outrageously likened intelligence professionals to Nazis and regularly describes intelligence estimates of the Russian threat as “fake news” or a “witch hunt.” Senior ex-spooks, not surprisingly, have fought back. In the process, the CIA is becoming a political football.

James R. Clapper Jr. and John Brennan, former directors of national intelligence and the CIA, respectively, took some roundhouse swings in Aspen, calling Trump’s remarks “insulting,” “completely inappropriate” and “not . . . honorable.” They’re right. The problem is that the millions of Americans who fantasize about a supposed “deep state” become more convinced that this conspiracy exists when they hear former intel chiefs attack the president.

● The Trump administration has failed to make clear strategic decisions. Trump’s policies on Syria, Russia, Iran and China are a hodgepodge of conflicting goals and unresolved issues. Meanwhile, the president keeps pushing the agency to come up with options.

Historically, this is where the CIA gets in trouble. Presidents who want “wins” but lack a systematic diplomatic strategy have used covert action to topple governments or wage undeclared wars. When the secret campaigns backfire and public support disappears, the agency is left holding the bag. The lesson: When policymakers don’t know what to do and turn to covert action, the agency should sometimes say no.

Pompeo’s penchant for covert action was clear in his Aspen comments. On North Korea, he advocated separating the country’s military capability from its erratic leader, Kim Jong Un, and said, “The North Korean people . . . would love to see him go, as well,” though he tempered this threat slightly by joking that the United States should be careful about “what’s behind door number three.” On Iran, he said the United States should stop “appeasement” and “find a platform which could uniformly push back against Iranian expansionism.” In combating the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ leadership, he said, “we’re deadly focused on making sure [they] don’t maintain capacity and power.”

● Finally, and most important, the administration Pompeo serves is in disarray. The president is trying to bad-mouth his attorney general into resigning, and he may plan to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III next. The country needs steadiness and independence from the CIA. Pompeo should think about institutional and constitutional obligations, as well as presidential ones. He knows where the accelerator is, but he should also look for the brake.

Richard Helms, perhaps the most astute director in the CIA’s history, was so wary of getting involved in policy debates that it’s said he excused himself from presidential briefings once he had delivered the intelligence. President Lyndon B. Johnson supposedly would press him to stay and offer his views.

Pompeo, a blunt ex-congressman, appears to have the opposite instinct. He’s at the White House nearly every day, and it’s said that his briefings with Trump sometimes veer back and forth between intelligence and policy matters. Trump wants action; Pompeo wants to deliver. This can-do temptation is inherent in the relationship between any president and CIA director, but in this case, it may be a cause for concern.

Pompeo is as ambitious and ideologically passionate a CIA director as we’ve seen in decades. On the wall near his agency dining room is a portrait of Helms, with a bemused, skeptical look in his eye. I hope Pompeo takes a moment to consult his predecessor.

The Washington Post

CIA and the ‘Anti-Assad’ Program


What did the CIA’s covert assistance program for Syrian rebels accomplish? Bizarrely, the biggest consequence may be that it helped trigger the Russian military intervention in 2015 that rescued President Bashar al-Assad — achieving the opposite of what the program intended.

Syria adds another chapter to the star-crossed history of CIA paramilitary action. These efforts begin with the worthy objective of giving presidents policy options short of all-out war. But they often end with an untidy mess, in which rebels feel they have been “seduced and abandoned” by the promise of US support that disappears when the political winds change.

One Syrian opposition leader highlighted for me the danger for his rebel comrades now: “The groups that decided to work with the US already have a target on their back from the extremists, but now will not be able to defend themselves.”

The demise of the Syria program was disclosed by The Post this week, but it’s been unraveling since President Trump took office. Trump wanted to work more closely with Russia to stabilize Syria, and a program that targeted Russia’s allies didn’t fit. The White House’s own Syria policy remains a hodgepodge of half-baked assumptions and conflicting goals.

The rise and fall of the Syria covert action program conveys some useful lessons about this most delicate weapon in the United States’ arsenal. To summarize, the program was too late, too limited. It was potent enough to threaten Assad and draw Russian intervention, but not strong enough to prevail. Perhaps worst, the CIA-backed fighters were so divided politically, and so interwoven with extremist opposition groups, that the rebels could never offer a viable political future.

That’s not to say that the CIA effort was bootless. Run from secret operations centers in Turkey and Jordan, the program pumped many hundreds of millions of dollars to many dozens of militia groups. One knowledgeable official estimates that the CIA-backed fighters may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years. By the summer of 2015, the rebels were at the gates of Latakia on the northern coast, threatening Assad’s ancestral homeland and Russian bases there. Rebel fighters were also pushing toward Damascus.

CIA analysts began to speak that summer about a “catastrophic success” — in which the rebels would topple Assad without creating a strong, moderate government. In a June 2015 column, I quoted a US intelligence official saying, “Based on current trend lines, it is time to start thinking about a post-Assad Syria.” Russian President Vladimir Putin was warily observing the same trend, especially after an urgent visit to Moscow in July that year by Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force and Assad’s regional patron.

Putin got the message: He intervened militarily in September 2015, decisively changing the balance of the Syrian war. What Trump did in ending the CIA program was arguably just recognizing that ground truth.

What could the United States have done to provide a different outcome? Here are some thoughts gathered from US and Syrian officials who have followed the CIA program closely.

●CIA support could have started earlier, in 2012, when extremists weren’t so powerful and there was still hope of building a moderate force. By 2013, when the program got rolling, the military opposition was dominated by warlords.

●The United States could have given the rebels antiaircraft weapons, allowing them to protect rebel-held areas from Assad’s brutal bombing. The rebels trained with such weapons but could never use them on the battlefield.

●The United States didn’t have a political strategy to match the CIA’s covert campaign. “There was no ‘there’ there, in terms of a clearly articulated national security objective and an accompanying strategy,” said Fred Hof, a former State Department official who has followed the Syria story closely.

The American effort unintentionally “created massive divisions and rivalries instead of being used as a tool to unite disparate factions,” another former official said.

Washington Post

America Can Succeed Militarily in the Mideast

What lessons can we take from ISIS’ defeat in Mosul and its coming eviction from Raqqa? The collapse of the so-called “caliphate” tells us that the United States can succeed militarily in the Middle East if — and probably only if — it works with local forces who are prepared to do the fighting and dying.

Where the massive US ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade and a half became expensive exercises in frustration, the war against ISIS has been far less costly in money and American lives — and also more successful. Amazingly, over the past three years, just five Americans have been killed in action in Syria and Iraq, according to the US military.

The overall human toll has been horrific, even if Americans haven’t been paying the price. A triumphal Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi proclaimed victory in Mosul on Monday, but pictures of the city showed a devastated wasteland of pulverized buildings. We may never know how many thousands of civilians lie under the rubble.

Because the US footprint and casualty levels have been so modest, to Americans this war has mostly been out of sight, out of mind. But it’s worth examining how the strategy has worked militarily — and to recognize the lack of any corresponding political strategy, which may well cause problems down the road.

The American campaign has been built around Special Operations forces. The SOF slogan has been that the battle must be waged “by, with and through” local partners. That has meant training, equipping and advising Iraqi and Syrian soldiers — then providing them with air support that has relentlessly pounded the enemy.

The most brutally efficient part of the campaign has been the secret “capture or kill” strikes by the United States and some of its partners. In simple terms, when the United States has had actionable intelligence about a terrorist operative, it has tried to take that person off the battlefield.

The marriage of local ground forces with US drones, warplanes and intelligence has been potent. Linda Robinson, a Rand Corp. analyst who spent weeks observing the fight this spring in Iraq and Syria, wrote in a recent blog post that the United States has found a “new way of warfighting.”

Credit for this innovative campaign goes to the US military, which became increasingly confident after a slow start; to President Barack Obama, who sent thousands of US troops to Iraq and Syria despite public wariness; and to President Trump, who delegated decisions to the military in ways that accelerated the campaign.

In Iraq, the United States has relied on two battle-hardened forces: the Iraqi army’s Counter Terrorism Service and the Kurdish peshmerga. The two cooperate on the battlefield (even as their political leaders continue to bicker).

In Syria, America’s decisive ally has been the Kurdish militia known as the YPG. This partnership began almost by accident back in 2014, when the marauding ISIS was on the verge of capturing Kobani in northern Syria. Iraqi Kurds from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan militia touted the Syrian YPG to their American advisers, and an improvised system of spotting, targeting and air assault evolved. The Americans were astonished by the determination of the Kurds, and a warriors’ kinship developed.

The Syrian Kurds were an awkward ally politically, because Turkey regards them (probably rightly) as an offshoot of the terrorist PKK. But as US Central Command commander Gen. Joseph Votel told me at a training base inside Syria a year ago, “We have to go with what we’ve got” in Syria, which meant the Kurdish-led force.

This sort of improvised approach has characterized the US effort since 2014. Rather than build the ideal force on a US model, commanders adapted. Political problems — bitter Turkish opposition, Iraqi Kurdish ambitions for independence, incoherent political strategy for Syria — were put on the shelf for later. The military strategy has been built on political quicksand, but it’s still standing.

In 2012, the CIA conducted a study that argued that American support for such local forces had rarely worked. But sources say that agency analysts had an important caveat: In the US interventions that were successful, the United States had operated closely with its partners on the battlefield. This finding seems to have been reinforced in Syria and Iraq.

The Washington Post

A Reading into the US-Russia Meeting

President Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit on July 7 in Hamburg.

The self-proclaimed “deal maker” finally got the beginnings of what could be an important diplomatic agreement in Friday’s Russian-American summit in Hamburg. For a rookie, President Trump appears to have avoided big mishaps that sometimes plague such great-power talks.

The importance of the meeting between presidents Trump and Putin isn’t so much in the details, though the proposed cease-fire in Syria could save lives in that tragic conflict and lead to more “safe zones.” It’s more in the restoration of dialogue between the US and Russia after a long period in which relations had deteriorated to the danger point.

For Trump, the meeting marked the fulfillment of a controversial promise he made early in the 2016 campaign to seek an improvement in relations with Moscow. Trump may claim a “win,” but the greater beneficiary is probably Putin, who seized this opportunity to “come in from the cold” after the sanctions and diplomatic isolation that followed Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Trump bought the Syria deal at relatively low cost. Sanctions against Russia remain in place; the Russian diplomatic compounds that were seized Dec. 29 haven’t been returned. It was widely suspected that Trump’s advisers had discussed a removal of sanctions after he won the presidency; if any such agreement exists, it hasn’t been disclosed.

Trump opened the meeting by raising the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; whether this was a fuzzy pro-forma statement or a real protest isn’t clear. Putin is said to have denied any such interference, but his response wouldn’t be credible, no matter what he said. Ex-spies aren’t believable on the subject of covert actions. The decisive evidence on this subject of Russian meddling will come from special counsel Robert S. Mueller when he completes his investigation.

The Syria agreement is the most important “deliverable” from Friday’s meeting. Tillerson has been working on the details for weeks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The cease-fire in southwest Syria, negotiated with Jordan (and, unofficially, with Israel) was actually hatched about a week ago and kept on ice so that all sides could make sure it was being observed.

The stage is now set for other US-Russia efforts to de-escalate the Syria conflict and begin to stabilize the country. For the Syrian opposition, Friday’s most important development was Tillerson’s announcement that President Bashar al-Assad will eventually leave power and that there will be a political transition away from the Assad family. Assad will probably resist, as may Iran. But if the United States and Russia are co-guarantors of this transition, it’s likely to move ahead.

Friday’s summit meeting also produced some useful dialogue about North Korea. Tillerson said that Trump has discussed curbing North Korea’s weapons programs with both Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping. There’s no accord on how to pressure Pyongyang — and indeed, some obvious disagreements. But at least there’s a public recognition of the seriousness of the problem — and of the shared interest of the United States, Russia and China in dealing with it.

Summits can sometimes be dangerous. Western politicians can make unwise concessions to autocratic leaders, as happened at Munich in 1938 and Yalta in 1945, with tragic consequences. Apart from his still-mysterious exchange with Putin about Russian meddling, Trump, embattled and unpopular though he is, doesn’t appear to have made such mistakes at Hamburg. Instead, this was a summit meeting that reminded us of the benefits of diplomacy.

(The Washington Post)

Is War Between a Rising China and a Dominant America Inevitable?

Chinese President Xi watches during a gift handover ceremony at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva

Let’s imagine a Chinese “applied history” project, similar to the one at Harvard’s Belfer Center that helped spawn Professor Graham Allison’s widely discussed book “Destined for War.”

Allison’s historical analysis led him to posit a “Thucydides Trap” and the danger (if not inevitability) of war between a rising China and a dominant America, like the ancient conflict between Athens and Sparta chronicled described by the Greek historian Thucydides. A study by the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project identified 16 similar “rising versus ruling” cases over the past 500 years, 12 of which resulted in war. What would the Chinese say about the lessons of past interactions with the West?

Chinese analysts, from President Xi Jinping on down, have nominally rejected Allison’s pessimistic analysis. “There is no Thucydides Trap,” Xi has argued, claiming that he had devised an alternative “new type of great-power relations” that would avoid war by recognizing that each Asian giant had its own legitimate interests. More recently, he has shifted to arguing that “China and the US must do everything possible to avoid [the] Thucydides Trap.”

Similar protestations have reportedly been offered privately in recent months by a string of senior Chinese officials, and China’s modest cooperation with the United States in dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat provides some hope that this is indeed a “win-win” game, as Xi and other Chinese leaders so tirelessly repeat. (Of course, if you’re a hawkish “Trap” advocate, these are just more soothing blandishments to encourage the United States to avoid reckoning with the potency of Chinese power.)

An interesting thought experiment would be to imagine a Chinese version of Allison (though one of their weaknesses is they don’t have such a prominent, independent scholar), who decides to examine the ledger from their side. What would such applied history teach the Chinese about their looming intersection with the dominant power of the United States?

I’m no expert on Chinese history or foreign policy, so I’ll simply sketch some areas of possible study for a hypothetical Sino-Thucydides analysis. In each case, my imaginary Chinese scholars would apply Allison’s rubric for applied history (developed by the late Professor Ernest May), which asked how each case was like its historical antecedent, how it was different and how that evidence might produce a net assessment.

Here’s my list of testable propositions, from a Chinese perspective.

Economic and cultural power is no substitute for military power. China was a dominant economic and intellectual force when it first encountered European power, but it lacked technologically backed military muscle. Mistake.
Weakness breeds contempt. Western powers made a show of pledging loyalty and tribute to China’s rulers and warlords, but this masked hostile intent. The Chinese were wooed and corrupted by the West’s influence. Mistake. Allison quotes Thucydides’ precept: The weak (and by extension, the corrupt) suffer what they must. Rooting out (or at least controlling) corruption is a central Chinese task.

The West preached openness as the way for China and other Asian nations to absorb advanced technology and Western know-how. But the West exploited that openness to create dependence. Even Japan, which built an astonishing manufacturing base, remained dependent on Western raw materials and energy supplies. Mistake. The result was a catastrophic war.

Networks of aid and assistance are good covers for expanding influence and military power. The Marshall Plan was a sublime scheme for spreading US influence and blunting the Soviet Union, in the name of relieving humanitarian suffering. China is devising similar outreach through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the cooperative development project known as “One Belt One Road.” The United States has done everything it can to prevent other nations from signing up to China’s initiatives. Mistake. Asian development is the handmaiden of Chinese power.

The United States argues that transparency and an international rules-based order are the best guarantee of security for all sides. But what this really means, through modern history, is that the United States makes the rules and others obey the orders. Adherence to the “rules” would have checked China’s expansion into the South China Sea (allowing perpetual US domination). And if last year’s Philippine arbitration ruling had been enforced, it would have rolled back China’s projection of power through reclaimed islands and military bases. Mistake. History teaches that China should proclaim that its intentions are limited, benign and non-military — even as its power expands and it creates the military bases that will allow it to challenge US naval power in the South China Sea.

I’ve stacked the deck here, a bit, with some of the cases that lead many analysts to assume that a rational China, seeing these lessons of history, will opt for a course that increases the likelihood of confrontation. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe there really is an alternative “new type of great-power relations” that would posit different outcomes. I await such an analysis from my imaginary Chinese counterpart to Graham Allison.

(The Washington Post)

The Russia Probe Through Moscow’s Lens


At a cafe a few blocks from the old KGB headquarters at Lubyanka Square, investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov tries to explain the murky world of Russian intelligence that’s now the focus of a US criminal investigation into the hacking of the 2016 campaign.

Big events in today’s Russia often aren’t the product of broad strategy, argues Soldatov, but rather are “tactical moves” that reflect the personal interests of President Vladimir Putin and his all-powerful “presidential administration.”

Soldatov thinks the Putin factor is crucial in understanding issues in the hacking investigation. Putin has a personal dislike for Hillary Clinton, and Russian intelligence had been gathering information about her since late summer 2015. But what may have pushed the Russian operation into a higher gear was the April 2016 publication of the famous “Panama Papers,” which revealed secret bank accounts of some of Putin’s close friends and associates.

“It was a personal attack,” says Soldatov. “You cannot write about Putin’s family or personal friends.” He speculates that the Russian leader “wanted to do something about it, to teach a lesson.”

Putin denounced the Panama Papers as a deliberate effort by America to embarrass him. “Officials and state agencies in the United States are behind all this,” he charged in April 2016. “They are used to holding a monopoly on the international stage, and do not want to have to make way for anyone else. … Attempts are made to weaken us from within, make us more acquiescent and make us toe their line.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied at the time that the U.S. was “in any way involved in the actual leak of these documents.” But he confirmed that the U.S. Agency for International Development had supported the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, one of the media organizations involved in researching the Panama files. To the Russians, that was proof enough.

For Putin, the ex-KGB officer, nothing in the information arena is accidental. In a combative session last week at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, he rebuffed NBC’s Megyn Kelly: “As for independent sources, there is nothing independent in this world.” When she pressed about Russian “digital fingerprints” in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, he exploded: “What fingerprints? Hoof prints? Horn prints?”

The day before, Putin had said that “patriotically minded” Russian private hackers might have been involved in the operation. But by June 2, he was in full denial mode, suggesting that the CIA could have manufactured the whole thing: “IP addresses can be simply made up. … There are such IT specialists in the world today, and they can arrange anything and then blame it on whoever.”

Soldatov argues that Russian intelligence taps the network of private hackers, much as the CIA and National Security Agency use private contractors to develop offensive cyberweapons and “zero-day exploits” for malware. “Although the [Russian] security and intelligence services have cyberwar capabilities, most of the actual strikes come through other channels,” he wrote in a post last year on his website, He cited the example of a Russian technology company that allegedly was asked to help organize “sensitive” denial-of-service attacks.

The truth of what happened in the 2016 campaign will take many months to unravel, and there’s a cloud of misinformation, fueled by Putin, Donald Trump and insatiable media coverage. Soldatov notes, for instance, that the famous dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele included “unverifiable” details and some “confusion” about facts.

But Soldatov wrote in January for The Guardian that it’s also “a good reflection of how things are run in the Kremlin — the mess at the level of decision-making and increasingly the outsourcing of operations.”

To Russian eyes, all information is potential disinformation, and secrets are hidden from the public. As Putin scolded Kelly last week: “A non-classified version means no version.” The Russians regard American media claims of independence as bogus, and they see their own propaganda outlets competing on equal terms with global media companies.

“Sputnik,” for example, had its own booth at the St. Petersburg forum. The Director of National Intelligence described Sputnik in a Jan. 6 report as part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine,” but its brochures describe a media group publishing 2,000 news items a day in Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Spanish and English.

As the investigation of Russian hacking rolls forward, we shouldn’t lose perspective: Russia isn’t a demonic, all-powerful presence. It’s a sophisticated, increasingly modern country. But it’s also the rare nation run by a former intelligence officer who sees the world through a very particular lens.

Washington Post

What Does Russia Think?

Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Dmitry Lovetsky/Associated Press)

When Russian officials and analysts here talk about the US investigation of their alleged hacking of the 2016 campaign, two themes predominate: They’re flattered that their country is seen as such a powerful threat, and they’re amazed that the United States is so preoccupied with the scandal.

This is the official line, to be sure, but it was also expressed by several critics of the regime I interviewed this week. People can’t quite believe the sudden reversal of fortunes: Russia is back as a global force, after decades of humiliation. And the United States, so long the dominant superpower, is now divided, disoriented and, to Russian eyes, in retreat.

For the Kremlin version, here’s how Sergey Karaganov, the head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, describes his reaction to the investigation: “It’s a mixture of disgust and sympathy. Disgust because 99 percent of that is lies or a concoction, maybe 100 percent. As for sympathy, it’s a desperate picture when a great democracy is killing itself, committing collective suicide.”

There’s an undisguised tone of schadenfreude here, even as officials talk about US overreaction. “I would have been proud and happy if the authorities of my country would have used some hackers to penetrate [your system], and showed that you’re living in a crystal palace and should not interfere in the affairs of others,” said Karaganov, who’s an informal Kremlin adviser in addition to running the think tank.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wins either way, argues Andrei Kolesnikov, an independent analyst who’s a senior associate with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “If we did meddle in your elections, we show our might. If we didn’t, we’re pure.”

A similar assessment of the win-win dynamic for Putin comes from Andrei Soldatov, one of Moscow’s best investigative reporters and the author of many exposés about Russian intelligence. “What did Russia get [from the hacking] in terms of foreign policy? Almost nothing, except that Russia looks powerful,” he told me. “That’s why Putin is so popular. He gives people an identity: Once again, we’re a superpower.”

What surprises Russians is how quickly the US-led order has been coming apart since the election of Donald Trump. Russian officials loathed Hillary Clinton and favored Trump. But it’s unlikely that, even in the darkest corridors of the Kremlin, Putin’s advisers imagined that President Trump would be so disruptive, or the reaction to him so volatile. Russians have grown up being intimidated by the United States; they didn’t imagine it was so fragile.

“We think Washington has gone crazy,” said Andranik Migranyan, a former Russian government official who has taught politics in the United States. “The American story was always one of self-sufficiency. Now, we see a sense of vulnerability.” He sees Trump’s election as a “paradigm shift” for an America that was much more polarized and overstretched than the elites realized. Now, in his view, it’s payback time.

You might expect that Russians would feel embarrassed by the charge that they tried to subvert US and European campaigns, but it’s the opposite. Migranyan explained: “You are assuring us that Putin is all-powerful, that he can do anything he wants — fix elections, change Europe, do anything.”

The official media here are sardonic about each day’s revelations in the US media and Congress. When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said this week that Russia was more dangerous than ISIS, a Russian news site responded: “Somebody give this gentleman a sedative.” When a story broke about White House adviser Jared Kushner’s problems, the same site headlined: “Once again, those Russians!” Basically, they think it’s funny.

Karaganov described Trump as “unbelievably brave” in challenging US political orthodoxy, including his calls for better relations with Russia.

Trump’s chief virtue for the Kremlin is that he turned back Clinton, who embodied the aggressive, pro-democracy, interventionist policies that Russia viewed as a mortal threat. “We saw them as absolutely 100 percent dangerous,” Karaganov said. “My advice to the government if she wins was: Put your nuclear forces on alert, so they would know.”

Putin is hosting a celebration of Russia’s new power this week, at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, a Davos-like gathering. It’s not a victory parade, but it might as well be. For Putin and his allies, America’s vaunted “liberal international order” is dissolving.

“That order we did not like, and we are doing away with it,” Karaganov said.

(The Washington Post)

How the World Can Prepare for the ‘Day After’ ISIS


The Manchester terrorist attack by an alleged ISIS “soldier” will accelerate the push by the United States and its allies to capture the terrorist group’s strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria. But it should also focus some urgent discussions about a post-ISIS strategy for stabilizing the two countries.

For all of President Trump’s bombast about obliterating ISIS, the Raqqa campaign has been delayed for months while US policymakers debated the wisdom of relying on a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG that Turkey regards as a terrorist group. That group and allied fighters have been poised less than 10 miles from Raqqa, waiting for a decision.

All the while, the clock has been ticking on terrorist plots hatched by ISIS and directed from Raqqa. US officials told me a few weeks ago that they were aware of at least five ISIS operations directed against targets in Europe. European allies have been urging the United States to finish the job in Raqqa as soon as possible.

The horrific bombing in Manchester, England, is a reminder of the difficulty of containing the plots hatched by ISIS — and the cost of waiting to strike the final blows. ISIS is battered and in retreat, and its alleged “caliphate” is nearly destroyed on the ground. But a virtual caliphate survives in the network that spawned Salman Abedi, the alleged Manchester bomber, and others who seek to avenge the group’s slow eradication.

The Raqqa assault should move ahead quickly, now that the Trump administration has rejected Turkish protests and opted to back the YPG as the backbone of a broader coalition known as the “Syrian Democratic Forces”. These are committed, well-led fighters, as I saw during a visit to a special forces training camp in northern Syria a year ago.

The Trump administration listened patiently to Turkish arguments for an alternative force backed by Ankara. But the Pentagon concluded that this force didn’t have a significant battlefield presence and that the real choice was either relying on the Kurdish-led coalition to clear Raqqa or sending in thousands of US troops to do the job.

The White House rightly opted for the first approach several weeks ago. To ease Ankara’s worries, the United States is offering assurances that the Kurdish military presence will be contained and that newly recruited tribal forces will help manage security in Raqqa and nearby Deir al-Zour.

The endgame is near in Mosul, too. Commanders say only about 6 percent of the city remains to be captured, with 500 to 700 ISIS militants hunkered down in the old city west of the Tigris River.

Once Raqqa and Mosul are cleared, the challenge will be rebuilding the areas of Syria and Iraq, with real governance and security — so that follow-on extremist groups don’t quickly emerge. This idea of preparing for the “day after” ISIS has gotten lip service from US policymakers for three years but very little serious planning or funding. It should be an urgent priority for the United States and its key partners, such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Intelligence services from several key allies are said to have met in recent weeks with many leaders to form a core leadership that can take the initiative. But so far, this effort is said to have produced more internal bickering than clear strategy — a depressing rewind of failed efforts to build a coherent opposition in Syria.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo told me and several other journalists in an interview Tuesday that he plans to move the agency to a more aggressive, risk-taking stance. Here’s a place to start.

The Kurds are the wild cards in both Iraq and Syria. The Syrian Kurds are already governing the ethnic enclave they call “Rojava.” That should be an incentive for Syria’s Sunnis to develop similar strong government in their liberated areas. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurds have told US officials that they plan to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence soon, perhaps as early as September.

US officials feel a deep gratitude toward Iraqi Kurds, who have been reliable allies since the early 1990s. But the independence referendum is a potential flash point, and US officials may try to defer the Kurdish question until well after Iraqi provincial elections scheduled in September.

Iraq and Syria need to be reimagined, better-governed, more inclusive confederal states that give minorities room to breathe. The trick for policymakers is to make the post-ISIS transition a pathway toward progress, rather than a continuation of the sectarian catastrophe that has befallen both nations.

Washington Post