Bob Schwartz

Tag: Vladimir Putin

Do Something/Anything about ISIS? Would You Rather Have No Strategy or Bad Strategy?

Just Do It

President Obama candidly admitted that we have no strategy for dealing with ISIS, but that we are developing one.

Maybe too candid for the moment and his leadership position, but still a necessary truth. Necessary because no one on earth has a good strategy for dealing with that or the complex of situations around the world right now. For the religiously inclined, consider that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed convening in the Situation Room would have a tough time figuring out what to do next, short of calling in the Big Gun and wiping the slate clean and starting again.

This hasn’t stopped Congress from urging a simple solution to this puzzle: do something/anything. This is an all-time irony, given that Congress is currently infamous for doing absolutely nothing, ever, no matter how important the problem and no matter how relatively simple the solution. If a number of the members had a sense of irony, we could all wryly laugh at this, except that their sense of irony is absent, along with a sense of duty, democracy, and Americanism (the real kind, not the fake). Some of these same members do seem to have a sense of justice, John Wayne frontier justice, which is unfortunately out of place in the liquid world of 2014 global politics and insurgency.

A few years ago, some thought that democracy would spread around the oppressed nations like an epidemic, like Arab Spring fever. But chaos is also an opportunistic contagion, and as those on one insurgent or imperialist front look at the other fronts multiplying, they see opportunity and seize it. It doesn’t help that the geography is claustrophobic. If you don’t know it, connect the dots from Iraq to Syria to Israel to Gaza to Egypt, Sudan, and Libya. And that’s just one pole of the current dynamic.

We have been tragically mistaken on strategy in the last three major American wars. One was an abject defeat, the other two—Iraq and Afghanistan—have sort of ended, with an indeterminate outcome, and withdrawal that may or may not last. Let’s pull back from partisan finger-pointing, and just admit that some situations—whether you choose to demur or however you choose to engage—may have outcomes, but may not have solutions.

You can be smart or stupid, fearless or timid, right or wrong, and you can still be overwhelmed by circumstances. That is, there is no “perfect” strategy, especially not with the way things are aligning. So no, you can’t wait for that perfect strategy. But you also shouldn’t rush in with the next idea that comes into your head, especially if that idea comes from some outdated playbook that has already proven itself ineffective in current realities.

“Just do it” sounds great, as long as you spend sufficient time really considering what “it” is and what the consequences and outcomes might be. Oh, and also, you might try being candid, as Obama has been, rather than making stuff up. Like about WMDs. Like about wars that will last weeks and cost nothing. Let’s leave that sort of unhelpful lying to fairy tale tellers like Vladimir Putin, who is not invading Ukraine, and to Putin’s admirers and portrait painters.

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Putin and the Little Engine That Could

Vladimir Putin - Little Engine

The pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian warnings to stay away and out, are not surprising. A fifth-grader doing a Social Studies assignment (if there is still Social Studies) had this one figured out.

So obviously did the American intelligence and foreign policy experts. They can’t tell us they know because that would give something away, even if that fifth-grader has already guessed. The other reason it isn’t officially talked about is that, officially, few are sure what to do next.

Vladimir Putin is well set up, for something. He can take little bites out of the region, or if Ukraine should erupt in instigated civil war, he can enter on the pretext of assuring the stability and security of a neighboring country. There is plenty of historical precedent for this strategy, and for this strategy working.

We—and this includes those who claim to know him—are not sure exactly who Putin is: cunning statesman, cowboy, sociopath? Whether he has himself killed people, up close, is a matter of conjecture, but many have no trouble believing it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany and knows him, suggests that he is out of touch with the realities of the situation. Former U.S. President George W. Bush just displayed his painting of Putin, which picture says as much about W. as an artist as it does about the Russian President.

Putin is not out of touch with reality, any more than those people who believe that visualizing an outcome will ultimately make it so. He is under no delusion that realizing his reality will be cost free. He is just willing to pay the price, or allow others to chip in, maybe profoundly.

The U.S. may have the most distorted view of war in history. It isn’t that great sacrifice or valiant service haven’t been made. The U.S. didn’t just participate in some of the most significant defenses of human freedom; it helped freedom prevail. But for a few generations, there has been a lot of blood and treasure sacrificed in a sometimes well-meaning, sometimes self-serving fog. The source of the confusion is that for more than 150 years, the U.S. has not experienced national war on its soil. Regional conflicts and shocking, fleet- and building-destroying hostilities, but not a national war, inside or on our borders.

Whatever the list of solutions to international problems and provocations, war shouldn’t just be at the bottom of the list. It should be in some strategic sub-basement, below the last resort. At this moment, war in Europe is where it should be: unthinkable. But if something is unthinkable, then everything else has to be more thinkable, more discussed. Right now, the U.S. body politic is fascinated with other matters major and minor, because we need a break.

But trust this: Putin doesn’t give a care for what happened to a plane that has been at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for weeks. He is single-mindedly like that favorite American children’s book The Little Engine That Could, chugging along: I think I can, I think I can.

We don’t have to be concerned about Ukraine or we can be concerned. We don’t have to take action or we can take action. We don’t have to go to war or we can go to war. What isn’t optional is talking about it in the public square, in a conversation led by the President and others. This is not jumping the gun. It is a sensible prelude to an emerging situation, which could at any moment escalate from blah-blah-blah to something more active and serious.

The U.S. has not been very good at sensible preludes. The run-ups to recent wars have been filled with hyper-drama, fueled by the occasional exaggeration or lie. Ukraine, Europe, and the world need something else. Putin thinks he can. Who knows what we think?

Putin Wants to Capture Little Alaskan Island

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin may want to capture a little island sitting in Alaskan waters. This has nothing to do with geopolitics and everything to do with his love of a Greek hero.

The Diomede Islands are in the middle of the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska: Big Diomede is a Russian island, Little Diomede is a U.S. island.

It is thought by some that Putin became fascinated with ancient history and Greek mythology while studying law at Leningrad State University (LSU). As a student he had to join the Communist Party. He believed that his interest in these matters might be misunderstood and frowned upon by the Party, so he kept it secret—and it remains little-known to this day.

While reading ancient texts, Putin discovered the legendary warrior and king Diomedes. Among his achievements, as a relatively young man Diomedes won a reputation as one of the great military leaders in the Trojan War. A figure in both Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, Diomedes is celebrated for his boldness, courage, and intelligence.

Diomedes

Diomedes was also known for his take-no-prisoners attitude. It is reported that once when he was slaughtering Trojans, an old man pleaded for mercy. Diomedes replied, “Old man, I look to attain to honored age; but while my strength yet exists, not a single foe will escape me with life. The brave man makes an end of every foe.” Diomedes killed the old man.

All this may have had a profound effect on Putin. He vowed that one day he would take back Little Diomede Island, the namesake of his hero. Now that Putin’s expansionist program is in motion, could this be the time for him to strike?

There is an apocryphal story about Putin’s response to Sarah Palin’s remark during the 2008 campaign about Russia: “They’re our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.” She was of course referring to Little Diomede. “She will see more than Russia,” he may have said, “she will see Diomedes himself. She will see me.”

April 1, 2014

Putin’s Moldovan Invasion v. Dynasty’s Moldavian Massacre

Dynasty Royal Wedding
A cliffhanger is a cliffhanger. Russia may be about to invade its neighbor Moldova, based on troop buildup along the border. Almost thirty years ago, on May 15, 1985, the ABC series Dynasty ended Season 5 by leaving the world hanging, as terrorists invaded and shot up the royal wedding of Prince Michael of Moldavia and Amanda Carrington.

(Note: To clarify the Moldavia/Moldova confusion. Moldavia is a traditional region that now straddles the nations of Romania and Moldova. The language of Moldova is Romanian, and the Romanian name for Moldavia is Moldova. The producers of Dynasty may or may not have been aware of this, or that Moldova was at the time a part of the Soviet empire, or much else geographic. Dynasty was not a documentary or reality series. “Prince Michael of Moldavia” just sounded so cool and romantic, as was the fake country.)

Who would survive this now infamous Moldavian Massacre (you can watch it here)? Viewers of Dynasty, then #1 in the ratings, would have to wait all summer to find out. Meanwhile, that season-ending episode reportedly attracted 60 million viewers.

Will Putin invade Moldova, claiming that just as with Crimea, Moldovans are pleading to join up with their Russian friend and neighbor (and former ruler)? How will the world respond? How will Putin respond to that? That’s a real cliffhanger. And even though Putin seems to be playing a part in a costume epic, in which he is the royal hero, a sort of Putin’s Dynasty, this is no television series. Perhaps Czar Vladimir of Russia will wake up and see that.

Ukraine Sanctions: Who Is Poking Which Bear

Bear
The most interesting message about this morning’s U.S. sanctions to protest Russian actions came from one of those sanctioned. The travel bans and freezing of U.S. assets are aimed at a handful of Putin advisers and others complicit in the Crimean takeover, but not at the highest level (including Putin) or at any businesspeople.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is being sanctioned, tweeted this:

“Comrade Obama, and what will you do with those who have neither accounts nor property abroad? Or didn’t you think of that?”

On this day when a prominent Russian television journalist, with an atomic mushroom cloud as background, pointed out—correctly—that Russia is the only country that can reduce the U.S. to “radioactive ash,” the tweet from Comrade Rogozin is most telling.

The U.S., even more than our allies, is being poked. Taunted. “Is that the best you’ve got? You can do better than that!” The U.S. and Europe can of course do better (meaning: more severe) than that, from big business sanctions to military intervention, all of which threaten global instability.

This is the point in every fight when power has to be harnessed in the service of strategy. Russia wants nothing more than any excuse to throw away the rulebook they don’t believe in anyway. They aren’t so much bringing guns to a knife fight as brandishing guns to bring out the other guns and look like the victim. The aggressor victim.

Let’s hope or pray for our leaders to be strong, wise, unselfish, non-partisan, and honest (with us and with themselves), who can interpret the language of pokes, and can act appropriately.

Putin’s Bizarro World: Simultaneously Defending and Attacking Jews

Babi Yar Momument Kiev
In the last few days, Vladimir Putin has represented himself as the enemy of anti-Semitism and therefore the friend of Jews. He says, with a selective bit of truth, that among the many constituencies who deposed former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych were ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis who are themselves anti-Semitic. By this logic, Putin claims that his intervention in Ukraine is in part to restore Yanukovych and deny power to those anti-Semites.

In those same last few days, synagogues in the Ukraine have been vandalized and attacked, according to Russia by those same ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis. Few believe that. Instead it is widely believed that Russia is responsible for this anti-Semitic mischief, which conveniently fits the Russian story line.

Jews have had a tough time in Europe, in Eastern Europe, in Russia, and certainly in Ukraine. In September 1941, about 33,000 Jews were rounded up by the Nazis in Kiev, and along with tens of thousands of others, massacred in a ravine known as Babi Yar. Say what you will about the execrable, pathological and murderous Hitler, he knew how to play the strategic blame game. He regularly blamed the Jews for just about everything, but he rarely blamed someone else for hating and attacking the Jews. That was something he wanted full credit for.

So the suggestion for Putin is this: leave the Jews out of this particular rationale. The Jewish community in Ukraine is small, and it is true that in the just-evolving democratic regime, Jews will be uncomfortably standing side-by-side with people who don’t like them. Democracy makes for strange bedfellows, or at least that’s the lesson in America. Jews have enough problems without Putin as their friend and defender. Because with friends like that…

Putin About to Win Post-Olympics Invasion Competition

Putin Olympics
In August 1936 Adolf Hitler hosted the Olympics in Germany. In March 1938 he invaded Austria. He waited about 18 months.

In February 2014 Vladimir Putin hosted the Olympics in Russia. Just a few days after the closing ceremonies, Putin is hosting ousted Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. Putin is also engaging in rhetoric and military movements that reasonably look like a prelude to some sort of Russian intervention in the Crimea region of eastern Ukraine, or he is at least engaging in bullying and sabre rattling.

Putin is on his way to winning the gold for post-Olympics invasions, moving Hitler down to the silver. Well done.

Syria: So This Was the Plan All Along

The Sting
The Syria strategy may have looked improvised or haphazard. It turns out that all along it was a master plan. A sting. A long con. Aimed at having Assad turn over his chemical weapons.

It began with President Obama’s mention of a chemical weapons red line two years ago. Even after there was evidence that chemical weapons were being used a year ago, it was too soon to make a play. And then it was time.

Everybody knew their part. The President beat the limited and unbelievably small war drums. The international community and Congress demurred, feigning reluctance. Most of all, John Kerry’s penchant for overtalking was the most valuable tool. One loose remark after another, and then the trap was sprung. He mentioned the “impossible” possibility that Assad would turn over his chemical weapons in a week. The State Department would pretend that this offhanded remark was not administration policy. Assad and his Russian handler took the bait. Very soon—maybe not a week but soon—Syrian chemical weapons would be in the hands of the international community, ready to be destroyed.

Back in the real world, here is another possible behind the scenes scenario.

John Kerry continued to say stuff, lots of stuff. Asked if there was any way for Assad to avoid a strike, Kerry did indeed mention turning over the chemical weapons in a week. It was an accident.

Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad are power hungry political survivors, one more venal and voracious than the other. One or both of them sensed an opening.

It was Putin who may have said: This chemical weapons business is bad for all of us. The world knows you are our client state, and while I don’t mind defending you most of the time, this isn’t in either of our best interests. You can do whatever you want to hold on to power by conventional means; we will continue to help. The chemical weapons can be our trump card and it is time to play it. Once we come to the table, we can keep this negotiation going for months. As long as there is the appearance or the slightest possibility of progress, there will be no military action. Meanwhile, you can continue to pursue your war with no interference. I get to look a little bit like a hero and statesman—I don’t expect miracles—and you get to look like someone who isn’t averse to being part of civilized humanity. We both win.

The American scenario is already unfolding. While the administration is cautious about this latest development, it does claim that whatever good comes out of it will be due to their willingness to respond militarily. For the moment, it is hard to say who is more relieved, the President or Congress. The President may avoid having his request for authorization turned down. In Congress, those who continued to sit on the fence may be gloating, as a vote may be delayed or never taken.

And John Kerry? With all due respect, when you are smart and articulate, if you keep talking long enough, something good is bound to happen.