Archive for the ‘U.S. Military’ Category

Crumbling world order: Power politics and international law—the way forward

Thursday, September 10th, 2015


Stefan Kornelius, “Putins Machtspiele; Ruhe in der Ukraine, Druck in Syrien. Russlands Präsident sendet rätselhafte Signale. Sucht er einen Weg aus der Isolation? Oder einen neuen Schauplatz, um Stärke zu zeigen?” Suddeutscher Zeitung, 9. September 2015 (19:05 Uhr).

MICHAEL R. GORDON and ERIC SCHMITT, “U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria,” New York Times, September 8, 2015.

The post-World War II political and legal order appears to be crumbling.  At no other time since 1945 have the fundamental norms of the United Nations Charter and the prohibition of the threat or use of force been so widely violated with such an absence of invocation of international law by major countries in the world.

Russia has invaded and seized part of the Ukraine, the Crimea, and almost nowhere does one hear serious demands for Russian withdrawal and a return to the status quo ante, as required by international law. When U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled with a delegation to meet with Vladimir Putin and the Russians in Sochi, the issue was not even mentioned.

Russia continues its invasion of the eastern Ukraine, with thousands of Russian troops, tanks, artillery and other war equipment stationed in the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces (Oblasts) of the Ukraine.

In Syria, the United States and other NATO countries, including Turkey, are engaged in military activities against the so-called Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front, and other jihadist groups. Ankara has been attacking the PKK in Kurdish parts of Syria, and recently has even launched attacks against claimed PKK targets in Iraqi Kurdestan. A number of countries are assisting Iraq and the U.S. in attacking IS positions within Iraq.

In Yemen, a Saudi-led coalition is conducting air strikes against Houthi- held positions.

Within the last year Egypt conducted airstrikes against Libyan militia groups in retaliation for the murder of Egyptian workers.

Israel has conducted a number of air strikes within Syria aimed at preventing the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also launched air strikes against targets in the Golan Heights.

Beyond these obvious uses of military force, the United States has launched drone attacks and special operations attacks against jihadist leaders and other militants. Sometimes they have been  “signature strikes” against victims whose names are not even known, and who are  executed because of a pattern of activities suggesting they are members of terrorist groups. The attacks and special forces operations are not limited to the Afghanistan and Pakistan war theater.

In Syria itself, the Bashar al-Assad regime has carried out war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale, resulting in the deaths of some 220,000 to 250,000 people, the displacement of millions of Syrians, and the current scramble by millions of refugees to find a safe haven in Europe, or other countries.

One of the greatest challenges to international law has become the failure of states to report the use of force to the Security Council as required by Article 51 of the Charter, or to even acknowledge that they are the authors of state actions.

This is a spillover from the use of covert actions to achieve military objectives. Yet without acknowledgement of state behavior, much less attempts to legally justify it, international law governing the use of force cannot really deter future violations.

Perhaps the greatest casualty from these events has been a loss of awareness of the relevance and critical importance of international law and institutions in controlling the international use of force, and demanding compliance with the terms of treaties related to the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of different states or countries throughout the world.

The president of the United States, Barack Obama, has virtually eliminated the use of the term and concept of international law from his discourse, going back as far as his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in Oslo in December, 2009.

Moreover, we should not forget that the entire edifice of international human rights is based on international law treaties and the development of customary international law norms in the human rights area.

Human rights are a creation of international law. We should not be too surprised, therefore, to find that the human rights policies of a president who holds little regard for international law have themselves been quite disappointing.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have invoked international law from time to time, they can hardly be taken seriously so long as Russia stands atop its military conquest in the Crimea, and continues its invasion of the eastern Ukraine.

With these developments, and Obama’s obvious lack of regard for international law, the risk is great that the West, including the U.S., NATO, and the EU, will try to solve the great problems it faces by reverting to the use of “great power politics”— without regard for the development of international law and institutions, and state practice, that have occurred in the last 100 years.

Using this aproach, deals could be struck with Russia to recognize the conquest and annexation of the Crimea, with the lifting or easing of sanctions, in exchange for Russian “cooperation” in solving the Syrian problem.

In this way, the Russians who are themselves complicit in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity within Syria, might secure permanent bases and recognition of al-Assad’s continuing hold on power, at least  in a rump state in the North and along the Mediterranean where a high percentage of the Alawite population is found.

So, are we to simply give up on the concept and accumulated state practice of international law governing the use of force?

Or is there some way of dealing with the power politics dimension of international affairs without giving up on international law?

These are the questions for current leaders in the world, from Washington, Brussels and Berlin, to Taipei, Manila and Hanoi, and even Argentina.

What would the world look like without international law governing the use of force, or the protection of human rights?

These are not idle or theoretical questions. For the answers we come up with will determine the future kind of world we live in.

Nor are these new questions. They were fully considered by the Drafters of the U.N. Charter, and by generations of leaders who sought to uphold its provisions.

Moreover, not only leaders need to consider and answer these questions, but also political elites, media, and the populations of different countries.

For their continuing and incessant demand for legal justifications of state actions under international law may be the best and perhaps the only way to ensure that the gains achieved over the last 100 years will not be lost.

No one can take the international law governing the use of force for granted. Only persistent demands for legal justification can guarantee its continuing relevance and deterrent power in a world that threatens to sink increasingly into armed conflict and chaos.

In a nuclear age—and we need always to remember that we still live in one— “power politics” without international law is a formula for disaster, and for the eventual annihilation of the human race through nuclear war, or newer and even more efficient means of mass destruction.

The Trenchant Observer

REPRISE–Syria: Russia and Iran complicit under International Law in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Late News—-

See MICHAEL R. GORDON and ERIC SCHMITT, “U.S. Moves to Block Russian Military Buildup in Syria,” New York Times, September 8, 2015.

Vladimir Putin is now engaged in extremely dangerous brinksmanship in Syria, apparently introducing Russian troops and special operations forces to bolster the collapsing Bashar al-Assad regime—in a war theater in which U.S. and allied air forces and NATO member Turkey have become militarily active.

Vladimir Putin, the veteran chess master, has moved a big piece on the international chessboard, as European leaders are overwhelmed by the waves of refugees and immigrants now roaming through their territories, while EU sanctions against Russia for its invasions of the Ukraine must be renewed by July 15, with the formal written approval of all 28 governments, or they will lapse. Even a lapse of a few days could have huge and unforeseen consequences.

This is a wonderful playing field for Mr. Putin, but one in which miscalculation, accident or the unexpected could hurtle the nuclear superpowers into a direct and escalating conflict with the potential for nuclear war.

Putin seems convinced he can out outbluff Barack Obama in any nuclear showdown. This could lead to dangerous miscalculations in dealing with an American government whose strategic nuclear decisions could be taken not by a vacillating President Obama acting alone, but rather by a united national security team including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the country’s military leaders, acting in concert with the president.

At such a juncture, it is useful to recall that Russia is complicit under international law for the past and ongoing commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the al-Assad regime and its supporters.


REPRISE:  Syria: Russia and Iran complicit under International Law in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” The Trenchant Observer, June 16, 2013.

Sergei Lavrov argues that Russia has to supply modern weapons systems to Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria in accordance with contracts that have already been signed, and warns the West and the Arab countries that any military action such as establishing a no-fly zone in Syria (without U.N. Security Council authorization), would violate international law.

Staff and Agencies, “Syria no-fly zone would violate international law, says Russia; Comments by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov underline G8 challenge faced by US in trying to gain support for intervention,” The Guardian, June 15, 2013 (07:11 EDT).

However, as Lavrov makes this argument, one central fact must be kept foremost in mind:

Under International Law, Russia and Iran are themselves complicit in the commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria. The Russians have knowingly supplied weapons, training and personnel to assist al-Assad’s forces in the commission of such crimes. Both Russia and Iran have helped finance the continuing commission, with their own ongoing advice and participation, of these crimes.

Consequently, they themselves are guilty of the commission of these crimes.

On the relevant international law on complicity in the commission of international crimes, see

Helmut Philipp Aust, Complicity and the Law of State Responsibility, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Introductory front matter for the book, including a table of contents, is found here.

For a summary of Aust’s book, see Michael Byers, Book Review of Helmut Philipp Aust, Complicity and the Law of State Responsibility, in 23 EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL LAW (EJIL), pp. 583–589 (2012). The full text of the book review is found here.

For an earlier (1996) treatment of the subject, see Bernard Graefrath, “Complicity in the Law of International Responsibility,” 1996 REVUE BELGE DE DROIT INTERNATIONAL, No. 2, pp. 370-381. The full text of the article can be found here.

In view of the above, when Barack Obama and the other G-8 leaders sit down with Vladimir Putin at the G-8 meeting in Belfast on Monday, June 17, they should all bear in mind that they are in the presence of a Russian president who is responsible for Russian aid and assistance to al-Assad’s regime in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that as a result Russia itself is guilty of committing these crimes.

Putin and Russia cannot cynically argue that they are allowed to assist al-Assad in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity, incurring international responsibility, while under international law the West and the Arab states can do nothing to help protect their victims.

That is not where international law is, today, in 2013.

For an idea of the crimes they are supporting, see the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, articles 1, 7 & 8, which largely represent a codification of existing customary international law relating to these international crimes. The text of the Statute of the ICC is found here.

It goes without saying that the commission of all international crimes in Syria must be stopped, including those committed by the insurgents.

The Trenchant Observer

The cold-blooded REALPOLITIK of the American president: Obama’s intellectual calculations in foreign policy, and his heart as cold as stone

Friday, July 31st, 2015


Obama seems to have opposed stronger action in Syria and in opposing Russian aggression in the Ukraine out of some demented belief that he is smarter than everyone else, and it is OK to stand aside and watch 250,000 people die in Syria, if that is necessary to “work through the Russians” to take a larger chess piece by making the nuclear deal with Iran. Or to adopt what was in effect a policy of appeasement against Russia as they invaded and “annexed” the Crimea, and invaded — and have hung on to — the eastern Ukraine, in order to gain Russian support for the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran.

Richard Spencer of The Telegraph has summarized what appears to be Obama’s highly intellectual policy towards Syria.


Richard Spencer (Middle East Editor, “Barack Obama does not want to defeat Isil – yet; For American foreign policy, winning the war against Isil quickly would be pointless and potentially disastrous” The Telegraph, July 31, 2015 (8:00 p.m. BST).

See also the articles by David Ignatius cited earlier here.

In Ethiopia this week, Obama hardly pressed the country’s leaders on their human rights violations. The U.S. has given priority to fighting terrorism, and seems willing to look away from seeing human rights violations in Africa.


Sharon L. Fawcett, “Obama’s heartbreaking words in Addis Ababa: It only took eight words for Barack Obama to break the hearts of millions of Ethiopians. Alemayehu Mariam was one of them,” Righting It: Writing to champion human RIGHTS, August 6, 2015.

Fawcett writes, “Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia to address the African Union. While there, on July 27th, he took part in a press conference with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. When asked by a Fox News journalist about his “obvious concerns about human rights…in Ethiopia,” Obama paused, looked down, and stated that he was “mindful of Ethiopia’s history,” then followed up with his view of Ethiopia’s recent elections: “the elections put forward a democratically elected government.” Fawcett goes on to refute any assertion that the government was democratically elected, citing Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and U.S. State Department reports on human rights in the country.

See also,

“Words and Deeds: Obama’s Defense of Democracy in Africa, 2011,” The Trenchant Observer, August 1, 2011.

“Obama and Democracy in Africa, 2011,” The Trenchant Observer, July 16, 2011.

Obama wants to foster entrepreneurial activity in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, without taking on the hard repression that exists in so many countries, which will have a decisive impact on who the new entrepreneurs are.

The need to support human rights defenders and to strengthen civil society is obliterated by the stong emphasis on business and weak positions (and actions) on human rights.  African countries need not only to grow, but also to distribute both old and new income beyond narrow elites.

The message is clear: The U.S. is willing, even eager, to work with dictators in Africa on security and economic issues, regardless of their records on human rights.

This is consistent with Obama’s call to Putin to thank him for his support on the Iran nuclear deal, as if it could not have been achieved without it.

No one asks, “Why didn’t Putin call Obama to thank him for his support in securing the nuclear deal?” That, howver, is a fair and even an essential question.

The president gives lip service to human rights and civil society. But as we’ve learned, we must watch carefully what he actually does, not merely what he says. We need to track carefully how much money the U.S. puts into foreign assistance in Africa to support those fighting dictatorships and for the rule of law.

To ignore human rights in Africa, in deeds if not in words, is to follow a false path, and it is sad to see Obama continue down it.

Think only of what has been going on in Egypt, and how silent the U.S. administration has been in the face of horrendous abuses.

The Trenchant Observer

Not indexed by Google — Censorship by another name: Obama and the Iran nuclear deal

Monday, July 20th, 2015

A number of articles of a controversial nature have not been indexed by Google in real time. The latest is the following article, which points out that while the P5+1 nuclear deal is a signal achievement for Barack Obama, it appears to have come at an exhorbitant cost:   1)  a U.S. failure to intervene in Syria in 2012 and thereafter, and 2) a failure to strongly oppose Russian invasion of thr Crimea in February, 2014, and of the eastern Ukraine beginning in April, 2014.


“The Iran nuclear deal: Has Barack Obama earned his Nobel Peace Prize? (Revised August 18),” The Trenchant Observer, July 16, 2015.

To that can be added America’s apparent tacit acceptance of the annexation of the Crimea in exchange for its support on the the Iranian nuclear deal.


“Russian annexation of the Crimea: “A criminal violation of international law” for Merkel in Moscow, but not worth mentioning for Kerry in Sochi,” The Trenchant Observer, May 13, 2015.

The article on Iran and the nuclear deal with Iran was immediately indexed by Ixquick, but has not yet been indexed by Google.

Perhaps the most egregious case of Google censorship by not indexing occurred with an article on the presumptive role of Vladimir Putin in the assassination of Russia’s leading opposition figure, Boris Nemtsov, on February 27, 2015


“Not indexed by Google Update: Putin and Nemtsov,” The Trenchant Observer, March 18, 2015.


The following observations, made by the Observer in the March 18 article above, remain valid and pertinent to the latest case of “non-indexing by Google”:

The ability of Google and other search engines to index a blog article or web page gives them powers equivalent to those of a totalitarian instrument of thought control.

The latest article by The Trenchant Observer not indexed in real time, and therefore invisible to most readers on the internet, is the following:

“After disappearing act, Vladimir Putin remains prime suspect in Nemtsov assassination, The Trenchant Observer, March 17, 2015 1:46 MDT.

The fact that Google is in effect censoring the blog by not indexing it in a timely fashion reveals the incredible power Google has achieved to affect the public discourse in many countries, including the United States. We now know that Google has cooperated with the NSA in violating Americans’ privacy rights, and that it cooperates with foreign governments in filtering content.

Several important points need to be stressed.

The technology created by Google and its dominant market position in the search industry has resulted in the existance of a totalitarian instrument with incredible power to shape political discussion by not indexing certain pages, or not doing so in real time. It systematically filters out the content of foreign newspapers, and news articles with which your previous searches indicate you would not agree.

It is like a newspaper distributor which has absolute power to unilaterally decide if you will get the New York Times the day it is published, or next week, or maybe a week after a critical debate in Congress–or even after the elections.

It is absolutely clear that “net neutrality” must be maintained to protect the free and timely exchange of ideas and opinions in a democratic state, with one exception: web pages of blogs and other pages containing commentary and comment or analysis of current events must be given priority over all other traffic.

And it is equally clear that the Congress must enact legislation that regulates the use of what is in effect a totalitarian instrument of thought control. The governments in the U.S. and the European Union should be monitoring Google’s cooperation with authoritarian regimes to filter the free expression of ideas, and also its filtering in the U.S. and Europe.

The power of Google is far too great to be left to the unchecked discretion of a company which gathers and sells the personal information of its users in a manner which would permit a totalitarian dossier about every user in every country to be created.

Google’s motto of “Do no evil” is in urgent need of goverment regulation and enforcement, in the U.S, Europe, and other democracies in the world.


“Not Indexed by Google: An Update (January 6, 2015)”, The Trenchant Observer, December 9, 2014 (updated January 6, 2015).


Given the power of Google to affect public debate, Congress should establish a legal framework that guarantees that all political opininion is immediately indexed and made available on the Internet to readers around the world.

The Trenchant Observer

The missing elements in the war against ISIS — Taking down their websites and engaging in robust public diplomacy

Friday, June 12th, 2015

UPDATE June 23, 2015

Europe is setting up a special police unit to monitor jihadist sites and content, andd to remove it.


Richard Spencer, “Europe-wide police unit to monitor Islamic State social media; Europol to set up specialist unit in response to concerns not enough is being done to prevent Isil propaganda,” The Telegraph, June 22, 2015 (12:15 p.m. BST).

This is the kind of action that is needed, on a very large scale, not only in Europe but in many other countries.


See Mark Mazzetti and Michael R. Gordon, “ISIS Is Winning the Social Media War, U.S. Concludes,” New York Times, June 12, 2015.

In a converstaion recently, a friend asked what The Observer would do to counter ISIS (or the self-denominated “Islamic State”).

From that conversation emerged crystalized thoughts from months of reflection.  In brief, I would suggest, at least for purposes of debate, that we consider the following:

The Enormity of the Threat

First of all, we must recognize the enormity of the threat to civilized nations represented by ISIS, and the huge progress they have made in waging a war for young Muslim minds. The existence and growth of a barbarian political and military power, in the heart of the Middle East, constitutes an existential threat to societies from the Middle East to Europe, the United States, and beyond.

The most daunting aspect of the threat is the rejection by ISIS and other jihadists of the fundamental moral and legal values undegirding European civilization for the last 400 years. These values have developed since the Peace of Westphalia and the birth of the modern nation state system and international law, following the ThIrty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution (including the revolutions in America and France).

These values spread through the rest of the world following World War II, with decolonization, the founding of the United Nations in 1945, and the universal recognition of governments’ legal obligations to protect fundmental human rights. They are now under attack.

International law obligations to protect fundamental human rights, refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of any state, and to comply with international treaties, customary international law, and the United Nations Charter itself, are all challenged by the growth of ISIS and other jihadists. The latter reject the values upon which the former are founded, retreating to the use of barbarism in fighting all who do not submit to their twisted and extreme vision of Islamic rule.

To date, the West and other civilized countries have not recognized the larger threat posed by ISIS and other jihadists, or at least not reacted in a manner commensurate with the nature and dimensions of the threat.

Responses have been limited in the main to defending against potential terrorist threats to the homeland, and to killing as many jihadists as possible in order to limit their territorial gains.

This approach, however necessary, has essentially failed to stem the growth of ISIS and others. It fails to adequately address the essential nature of the problem, which is that it involves a war for young Muslim minds, not only in Syria, Iraq, northern Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Europe, America and in many other countries throughout the world.

What more can be done?

Proposition for Debate #1: Taking Down Their Websites

First, we should consider whether to attack the capabilities of ISIS and other jihadists to spread their views and to use slick propaganda to gather new recruits.

We could take down their websites as fast as they pop up, and ensure that videos of beheadings and other acts of barbarism cannot be viewed, or viewed for long, on the Internet or social media. We could, perhaps in concert with other countries, prohibit their reproduction on television, in newspapers, or on social media. Italy successfully followed a similar policy in dealing with terrorists in the 1970’s.

We could use all of our military and intelligence capabilities to take down these sites. Freedom of speech is critically important, but it does not include the right to shout fire in a theater, or to incite others to join groups which commit horrendous acts of violence.

To be sure, there will be a need for judicial supervision and review, in some form, of such activities.

One suspects that the intelligence agencies, which probably glean important information about visitors to such websites, will strongly oppose taking them down. Yet a larger view is needed to inform decisions.

Does the intelligence gathered outweigh the benefit of crippling the recruitment and propaganda activities of the jihadists? Who will decide?

We should consider and debate these questions.

Proposition for Debate #2: Creating a much more robust public diplomacy

Second, we could mount a much larger and more effective public diplomacy structure and campaign, something on the scale of the U.S. Information Agency in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Obviously, a large effort would need to be made on the Internet and social media.

But we could also rebuild and build out our shortwave and medium wave broadcast capabilities, fund them, and greatly expand the schedule of broadcasts on the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, for example.

Before this idea is dismissed as obsolete, we should bear in mind that Internet sites can be blocked by those with territorial power such as the “Islamic State” or governments. Users and listeners can be tracked, as they were in Iran in 2009. One of the great advantages of older technologies like radio is that listeners cannot be tracked, and jamming is not always effective. Television can also be beamed by satellites or high-altitude balloons. In an authoritarian country in Africa or the Middle East, radio and broadcast television may still work as ways of getting through. One need only to have listened to a VOA broadcast in a country with no freedom of expression to appreciate this point.

What is clear is that the USIA, since it has been dismantled as an independent agency and wrapped into the Department od State, has lost much of its effectiveness. About all that remains are the VOA and RFE/RL broadcasts, on reduced schedules and to a much more limited number of countries.

Other partners in the battle against ISIS and other jihadists could be encouraged to bolster their own activities. Some form of coordination might be undertaken.

The separation between independent news, on the one hand, and opinion representing the views of the U.S. government, on the other, which flourished when the Agency was led by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s, should be strengthened.

Similarly, the laws prohibiting the U.S. government from directing its information activities at domestic audiences should be upheld.

There could be an issue here to the extent such a limitation limits the ways in which public diplomacy efforts can be directed at young Muslims in the United States. Other means of rebutting the jihadists will probably need to be found.

What is critical is that the intelligence agencies, or public diplomacy efforts, not be used to sell government policies to citizens in the U.S. This line has been crossed repeatedly since 9/11, but its strict observance going forward is absolutely critical.

Other Steps

Many defeats in the war for young Muslim minds may be attributed to the loss of respect the U.S. has suffered as a result of its use of torture at Abu Gharib and elsewhere, the conditions in which prisoners were held for years without trial or even military commission review at Guantanamo, the 2003 invasion of Iraq in clear violation of the U.N. Charter’s prohibition of the use of force, the use of drones outside war theaters in apparent violation of international law, and in general actions that do not sit well with America’s preferred view of itself as a city on a hill, where dedication to the pursuit of freedom and the rule of law, both at home and abroad, are the hallmarks of a democratic society and its government.

Improvement in these areas would in the long term help in the struggle for young Muslim minds, and also help reformers within Muslim societies win their struggle for the rule of law in their own countries.

But for now, two issues which urgently merit full discussion are those outlined above.

The Trenchant Observer

ISIS takes Ramadi and Palmyra; Obama undercuts Merkel and the EU with direct negotiations with Putin—who responds by cutting Russian transit routes to Afghanistan

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

U.S. foreign policy is in utter disarray, failing to meet the two greatest challenges to international peace and security in the world: (1) Russian military aggression in the Ukraine; and (2) The growing power of the Islamic State, emerging from the maelstrom of Syria and advancing against the collapsing military of an Iraqi state riddled by sectarian divisions.

Several factors and the cumulative impact of poor decisions over the last six years have contributed to this situation.

President Barack Obama has not been a trustworthy partner with U.S. allies.

In 2012, he apparently undercut Turkey and others as they were contemplating intervention in Syria.

He has cut adrift the Gulf States, among  America’s closest allies for 50 years, and has lost their trust, as evidenced by the failure of many of the Gulf’s leaders to attend Obama’s Camp David summit last week.

The conference showed all the signs of an impromptu affair suggested by someone in Obama’s entourage (like, “We better do something to placate the Gulf states which are unhappy over the Iran nuclear deal. Let’s invite them all to Camp David for a summit.”). The Summit was not well prepared, and produced no results worthy of note. Just words.

Secretary of State John Kerry apparently didn’t even bother to attend, busy as he was off on his fool’s errand of meeting with Putin in Sochi. Instead of the Secretary of State speaking to the media at the summit, it was Obama’s assistant, Ben Rhodes, who commented on the achievements of the gathering, such as they were.

This was amateurism run amok, evidence of a foreign policy in full disarray.

Kerry’s meetings with Putin and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov broke Russia’s isolation, and severely undercut Angela Merkel’s efforts to take a tough line during her visit to Moscow on May 9-10, where the emphasis was on German atonement for the depradations unleashed on Russia during World War II, and the “criminal” aggression by Russia against the Ukraine in the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, in violation of international law and the bases of the European peace and security order.

In a follow-up to the Sochi discussions, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria “F… the EU” Nuland was scheduled to meet with her counterpart in Moscow.

By undercutting Merkel, Obama also undermined efforts to hold a consensus together within the EU for the reauthorization of sanctions against Russia when they cime up for renewal at the end of July.

In Iraq and Syria, the fall of Ramadi to ISIS, as well as Palmyra, demonstrated the bankruptcy of Obama’s (non) strategy for dealing with Syria, and the growing power of the so-called Islamic State, which has now occupied large portions of Syria (up to 50%), seized Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq, and  sent fighters to Afghanistan and Libya.

If we want to understand the true significance of Benghazi, we need to reflect on the fact that Obama campaigned in 2012 on the proposition that Al Qaeda had been vanquished, just like Bin Laden, whereas the administration knew for a fact this was not the case. That is the significance of the removal from Susan Rice’s talking points of any reference to Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-connected groups.

On the two greatest challenges facing civilization and the West and the maintenance of international peace and security, (1) Russian military aggression against the Ukraine and purported annexation of the Crimea, and (2) the Syrian maelstrom which has given birth to ISIS and the growing threat to civilization it poses, the Obama administration has done next to nothing, aside from the modest economic sanctions imposed on a small number of Russian individuals and entities.

Even with respect to the nuclear deal with Iran, Obama has maneuvered himself into a weak bargaining position in the run-up to the self-imposed June 30 deadline for reaching a final agreement. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has reiterated his opposition to intrusive inspections, for example. With Obama pitching the deal to others before its final text has been agreed, and much of his legacy riding on its conclusion, the United Stats is in a poor position to walk away from a bad deal. Khamenai and the Iranians know this.

Obama’s bottom line with Putin appears to be that he wants to deal, to talk, to “negotiate”—even with Russia illegally occupying the Crimea and engaged in active military aggression in the eastern Ukraine. He wants Russian help on dealing with Syria (despite the evidence of the last four years that Russia has been anything but helpful), and also feels he needs Putin’s help in closing the nuclear deal in the P5 + 1 talks with Iran.

Obama is essentially proceeding from a position of weakness in dealing with Putin, having yielded to big business interests demanding that he impose no economic sanctions on Russia beyond those imposed by the EU. The threat of further sanctions against Russia for its continuing military invasion of the eastern Ukraine is politically impossible in Europe, and as a result is for all intents and purposes off the table.

Obama is unwilling to send lethal weapons to the Ukraine to help that country defend itself against Russia’s invasions.

He is willing to accept Putin’s invasion and “annexation” of the Crimea.

While only America can lead the Western alliance, instead of forging unity in facing down Putin, Obama has actively undercut his allies in Europe such as Angela Merkel.

In all of his actions toward both Putin and ISIS, Obama has demonstrated that he has no capacity for formulating a coherent strategy, and no stomach for ordering strong actions, with more than words, in response to the policies of military aggression and conquest in which both Russia and ISIS are engaged. In his pacifism and appeasement of Putin, he is immovable.

This is the tightly-controlled foreign policy Obama has been running out of his mind, and these are the results.


(1)  Ian Black (Middle East editor), “Seizure of Palmyra and Ramadi by Isis reveal gaping holes in US jihadi strategy; Far from being on the defensive, Islamic State has shown that the arms-length approach of the US to Iraq is failing and Washington is operating ‘day by day’,” The Guardian, May 21, 2015 (18:15).

“Robert Gates, the former US defence secretary, put it even more bluntly: “We don’t really have a strategy at all. We’re basically playing this day by day.” The urgent delivery of new anti-tank missiles for the Iraqi army has been one short-term response. But larger military and political questions are still unanswered.

But Obama’s credibility is extremely low. “Next time you read some grand statement by US officials on [the] campaign against Isis or see a Centcom [US Central Command] map about Isis reversals, just bin it,” commented Emile Hokayem, a respected Middle East expert with the International Institute of Strategic Studies.”

(2) Editorial Board, “The U.S. continues to send the wrong message to Russia,” Washington Post, May 21, 2015 (8:49 PM).

(3)  “Nachschub für Afghanistan: Russland schließt Transitweg für Nato; Für die Nato wird es schwieriger, ihre Kräfte in Afghanistan zu versorgen. Russland stellt sich quer. Regierungschef Medwedew beendet den Transit über sein Land,” Der Spiegel, 18. Mai 2015 (19:05 Uhr).

(4) Josef Joffe, “Im Bomben-Basar; Teheran zeigt den USA, was wahre Verhandlungskunst ist,” Die Zeit, 15. Abril 2015 (08:00 Uhr).

The Trenchant Observer

Obama’s endless incompetence in foreign policy: Kerry to travel to Russia to meet with Putin and Lavrov in Sochi

Monday, May 11th, 2015

How can we win, if (Putin) is boxing, and we are playing chess?”
Lech Walensa

It was announced today in Washington that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Sochi on Tuesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in order to discuss the Ukraine, peace negotiations in Syria, and the nuclear deal with Iran.

See Felicia Schwartz, “Kerry to Meet With Putin in Russia on Tuesday; Meeting would be first Cabinet-level U.S. visit to Russia since start of crisis in Ukraine, Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2015 (12:26 p.m.).

Two days after the West’s successful boycott of Putin’s Victory Parade in Moscow, the gigantic egos that inhabit the White House and on occasion the Seventh Floor of the State Department have broken ranks with Europe, rushing to the Aggressor’s lair in Sochi to meet with Putin and Lavrov.

Has Kerry taken too many airplane flights, absorbed too many cosmic rays, and spent so little time connecting the dots that he actually thinks he can “pressure” the Russians into changing course in the Ukraine, with his silver tongue?

Or that he can persuade Putin to force al-Assad to enter peace negotiations, and as a result of his own personal diplomatic brilliance agree to negotiations in Syria—a country torn asunder by al-Assad’s war cimes, crimes against humanity and other depradations, and compounded by the competing barbarism of ISIS or the Islamic State group?

Or that, following the recent conclusion of a framework agreement for the final nuclear deal with Iran by June 30, his personal intervention with Putin is needed to seal the deal?

If so, perhaps he has had too many red carpet treatments on his endless diplomatic travels, as a white knight on a shining white horse who must show up in every capital and personally intervene for any agreement on anything to be reached.

Are there no other capable diplomats and ambassadors who Kerry might use to negotiate with foreign leaders and execute foreign policy?

Let us examine again the proffered reasons for the trip:

(1) To discuss the hard work of securing compliance with the Minsk II agreement of February 12, 2015 with Putin, who is directly responsible for repeatedly violating its terms, with thousands of Russian troops fighting in the Donbas region of the Eastern Ukraine, i.e., to further pursue appeasement of the invading Russian Bear.

How can such discussions ever be fruitful, so long as Putin denies the presence of Russian troops in the eastern Ukraine?

They are the problem. How can that problem be solved so long as its very existence is denied?

What we have here is more talk, no actions, in the face of Russian aggression. And to add insult to injury, Obama and Kerry agree to hold the meeting in Russia instead of on neutral ground.

Words will not change Russia’s actions, as anyone who has followed events in the Ukraine for the last 15 months will understand. One should recall Kerry’s April 17, 2014 agreement in Geneva with Lavrov, the EU and the Ukraine, whose terms were violated with increasing intensity immediately following the agreement, or the January 21, 2015 agreement between Kerry and Lavrov and others to withdraw heavy weapons from the front lines, as their use by Russia and its puppet “separatists” intensified.

Is the Crimea on the agenda in Sochi? If not, why not, and what will Putin gather from the omission?

The principal effect of the Sochi meeting will be to weaken Russia’s isolation from the West.

Kerry has failed to grasp the fundamental difference between German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with Putin on May 10, and his own rush to see Putin in Sochi. Merkel, as the leader of the country that devastated Russia in World War II, had a unique reason for commemorating the soldiers who died at German hands, a highly symbolic action aimed at the reconciliation of two peoples. By not attending the Victory Parade on June 9, the Chancellor struck just the right balance.

Kerry has no such imperative reason to go to see Putin. His visit is ill-considered. In its aftermath, we can expect to see an increasing number of presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers meeting with Putin and the Russians.

In short, Kerry will be responsible for breaking the isolation of Putin, which is one of the few things which, over time, might cause him to consider a change of course.

(2) To continue to “work through the Russians” to find a solution to the civil war in Syria, despite the evidence of the last four years of the futility of such an approach in the absence of actions on the ground;

(3) To discuss the nuclear deal with Iran.

For a devastating critique of Obama’s approach to negotiating the final nuclear deal with Iran, see

Josef Joffe, “Im Bomben-Basar; Teheran zeigt den USA, was wahre Verhandlungskunst ist,” Die Zeit, 15. Abril 2015 (08:00 Uhr).

Apparently we live in an age where no one remembers anything, when unbounded egos vie for a chance to talk to the Great Dictator and Aggressor of Russia, whose plight is greatly eased by the divided leadership of the West, and the pacifists and appeasers who continue to oppose a policy of hard containment of Russia’s military aggression.

Historians will weep at the manifest stupidity and illusory nature of the hopes these actions pursue.

The primary reason for Kerry’s visit to see Putin in Russia appears to be personal vanity, and an exalted view that he, John Kerry, can make significant progress with Putin by speaking words to him in his physical presence.

Yet if there is one truth that emerges from recent years of dealing with Putin in Syria and the Ukraine, it is that Putin is never moved by threats or words, only by actions.

At the same time, Putin’s and Lavrov’s agreements are not worth the paper they are written on.

So, once again, we see the unending incompetence of Obama and his foreign policy team at work. Kerry goes to see Putin, in Russia, breaking his isolation, and for what? Absolutely nothing.

This is what we can expect from Obama’s foreign policy team in the remaing year and a half of his administration.

An endemic failure to connect the dots.

A dogged determination to avoid any actions on the ground that might anger Russia, as in the Ukraine (e.g., arming the government’s forces with lethal weapons).

A failure to lead the Atlantic Alliance and the EU in responding to Russian threats and aggression, including a failure to maintain unity among NATO and EU member states in dealing with Putin.

Indeed, how can we beat Putin, “if he is boxing and we are playing chess?”

The Trenchant Observer

U.S. strategy and leadership needed: The Middle East and other countries hurtle into the Vortex

Friday, March 27th, 2015

On some days, the news is so disturbing that you want to take a broader view of what is going on in a region, or the world.

The Middle East appears to be convulsed by civil war and situations that could lead to further civil and international conflict. At times it seems that everyone has forgotten about international law. States don’t bother to offer legal justifications for their actions, or sometimes even admit they are responsible for them.

Chaos in the Middle East

Shiite Houthis backed by Iran are taking over Yemen, provoking military responses from Sunni Arab states.

Did anyone offer a legal justification for the actions of the Sunni military coalition?

Barack Obama’s statements several years ago that we should pursue a “Yemen-like” solution to the Syrian civil war don’t look so good today.

Libya has become a failed state, ruled now by violence and near anarchy.

U.S. bombers join in Iraqi government attacks on ISIS in Tikrit, as Iranian-led Shiite militias engaged in the battle for the city stand down or adopt ambiguous postures. The United States is now participating directly in the confict with ISIS in Iraq, in what seems to be an open-ended commitment.

This may be required in order to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, but has not yet been the subject of much public debate in the United Stares.

Israeli-Palestinian relations are at their lowest point since the Second Intifada, following Banjamin Netanyahu’s scurrilous playing of the race card in the last days before the recent elections to the Knesset. After warning right-wing voters that the Israeli Arabs were turning out in droves for the elections, Netanyahu has lost all respect as a leader of Israel.

In the days before the elections, Netanyahu also promised right-wing voters that there would never be a Palestinian state so long as he remained in office. That sounded the death knell for the two-state solution, at least for now.

There are no negotiations underway, and it is hard to see how they can be restarted so long as Netanyahu remains prime minister.

Relations with the Obama administration are at an all-time low, putting the U.S. automatic veto against any U.N. Security Council resolution adverse to Israel into play.

Charlie Rose interviews Bashar al-Assad, giving a megaphone–once again–to a mass murderer guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria on a massive scale, where over 220,000 have been killed. With blood dripping from his hands, al-Assad wants to make a deal with the West to fight the Islamic State group or ISIS, leaving his regime and him in power.

In his diffidence to al-Assad, Rose refers to dropping barrel bombs and other war crimes and crimes against humanity as “actions that others look down on” or words to that effect.

Regarding Rose’s shameful interview with al-Assad in September, 2013, on the eve on an expected vote in Congress authorizing Obama to use military force against Syria–following the use of chemical weapons by Syria at Ghouta on August 21, 2013–see

See “CBS News and PBS: Network of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and PBS, give al-Assad megaphone for propaganda to oppose Obama—ON MONDAY!,” The Trenchant Observer, September 8, 2013.

The Islamic State group, the al-Nusra front, the Syrian army, Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Western-backed so-called “moderate” rebels, and who knows who else mix it up in the meat grinder of Syria.

Threats Beyond the Middle East

An unsteady truce holds in the eastern Ukraine. Putin sits poised like a leopard, waiting for the West to be distracted and/or show disunity before he strikes at Mariupol and continues building his strategic land bridge to the Crimea.

The Greek prime minister suggests, on the eve of his trip to Moscow, that Greece may veto the renewal of EU sanctions against Russia when they come up for renewal later this year.

Putin is driven by a need to continually engage the West in conflict, in order to distract his population from their sinking economy and worsening living conditions. He also seems to be on the path of delusions of grandeur, as he would be the leader who restored the Russian Empire and its sphere of influence.

See John Simpson, “Vladimir Putin is fighting for political survival – by provoking unrest in Ukraine, New Statesman, March 30, 2015 (9:44 a.m)

Writing from Sevastapol, the BBC World Affairs editor John Simpson explains how Russia’s premiere is stalling. His Crimean coup is an attempt to distract the west.

No one refers to international law.

Endless war, including war between Sunni states and Iran, is highly possible.

Once the genie of a broad Sunni-Shiite war in the Middle East is out of the bottle, who could contain it again?

In Washington, as in Europe and the Middle East, leaders are needed to deal with these situations effectively, pursuant to a coherent strategy. Yet such leaders are hard to find.

Into the Vortex we all go.

The Trenchant Observer

Putin’s power in the Kremlin and his dangerous nuclear and other threats

Thursday, March 26th, 2015


For a particularly incisive analysis of Vladimir Putin and the threat he represents, see

Eric Morse, “The deadly chaos behind Putin’s mysterious acts,” The Globe and Mail, March 24 2015 (2:02 PM EDT).

Eric Morse is co-chair of security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

Vladimir Putin has become the most dangerous man in the world.

With direct control over Russia’s nuclear weapons, unchecked by the collective leadership represented by the Politburo in Soviet times, engaged in dismantling the arms control security architecture built up since the Cuban Mssile Crisis in October, 1962, brandishing nuclear threats in an increasingly open manner, Vladimir Putin appears to be subject to no internal controls within Russia.

Engaging in highly provocative military probes of NATO airspace, conducting large-scale military maneuvers on an almost continuing basis, and articulating a vision of military conquest and annexation with increasing boldness, Putin is acting in dangerous ways which could result in a incident leading to an escalating military conflict with NATO countries.

Especially significant has been his endorsement, little commented on in the Western media, of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  That agreement, concluded on August 23, 1939, included not only a non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, but also the division andoccupation of Poland by the two countries and the takeover by the Soviet Union of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as parts of Finland and Romania.  A week later, on August 23, 1939, World War II began with the German inasion of Poland.

At the same time, the Boris Nemtsov assassination on February 27, 2015 has highlighted the ties between Vladimir Putin and the Chechen leader, Ramsan Kadyrov, who has at his command some 15,000-20,000 Chechen fighters, who constitute  a kind of personal militia operating outside of the regular security structures within Russia. Among the “volunteers” and regular forces which entered the eastern Ukraine from Russia were many such Chechen fighters.

The West is left with the urgent challenge of figuring out how to deal effectively with the most dangerous man on the planet, and then resolutely implementing the actions that are required.

In the Ukraine, appeasement has not worked.

Even the adoption in September of  tough economic sanctions did not stop Putin and his puppets from conquering more territory in the Donbas and threatening to take Mariupol in violation of the Minsk Protocol and ceasefire agreed on September 5. Now, following the recognition of those gains and the weakening of other provisions in the original Minsk Protocol in the Minsk II agreement signed on February 12, the credible threat of sending “lethal” arms to the Ukraine, and of further sanctions including exclusion from the SWIFT international payments system, may be helping to restrain Putin from moving at this time on Mariupol. That port city would give separatist-controlled territories in the Donbas an outlet to the sea, and its conquest would constitute an important advance toward establishing a land bridge to the Crimea.

But Putin can bide his time, waiting for disunity within the EU, NATO, or Europe and the U.S., before making his next strategic move.

Putin manifestly has been and will continue to be engaged in an all-out campaign to challenge and weaken NATO and the EU, executed relentlessly, 24/7, on many different fronts.

What seems clear is that he is steering Russia on a path that could lead to a nuclear confrontation with the West. Were that to occur, without any internal checks on Putin’s behavior, and in the absence of the confidence-building measures and arms control restraints which have existed until the very recent past, the situation could become even more dangerous than that which existed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

NATO and the West can no longer ignore the Russian threat to their security, responding lethargically while seeking refuge in illusions that with Putin anything resembling a return to “business as usual” is possible.

Rather, a long-term strategy of containment of Russia must be adopted, and quickly implemented. Only then (whether before or after Putin has passed from the scene) might there be any chance of Russia returning to the international community of civilized nations which seek to guarantee their security within the framework of the Unied Nations Charter and respect for international law.

That strategy of containment should eschew further appeasement but include renewed efforts to shore up the arms control measures achieved in the past, and joint efforts with Russia to secure new agreements that might reduce the risk of nuclear war, whether accidental or resulting from deliberate actions.


See also the following article quoting a Canadian minister, Chris Alexander, who in addition to accurately pointing out that Putin is behaving like a terrorist, also alludes to the origins of the Ukraine crisis as lying in the responses of the U.S. and other countries to events in Syria. This is a key point, as readers who have followed Russian actions in Syria and reactions from the West are probably already aware.

David Pugliese (Postmedia News), “Putin is behaving like a terrorist’: Cabinet minister’s speech on Ukraine sparks social media battle with Russia,” National Post, March 25, 2015 (Updated 3:50 PM ET)

The Trenchant Observer

Ukraine Crisis Timelines (2014-2015)

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

It is important to understand the unfolding of events during the ongoing Russian invasion of the Ukraine and military occupation of part of its territory (Crimea, Donbas).

To understand Putin’s military aggression, and the slowness and inadequacy of the responses of the EU, NATO and the U.S., we need to bear in mind not only the headlines of the day, but also the entire process of how we got to where we are today.

The following list of Timelines or Chronologies will be updated from time to time:

(1) “Ukraine Crisis Timeline as of January 30, 2015,” Foreign Policy Research Institute, January 30, 2014.

(2) “Ukraine crisis: Timeline” BBC News, November 13, 2014.

(3) Evan Beese, Tzvi Kahn, FPI FACT SHEET: TIMELINE OF RUSSIAN AGGRESSION IN UKRAINE AND THE WESTERN RESPONSE, Foreign Policy Initiative, September 18, 2014.

This chronology, while highly useful, contains some errors. It states for example,

“In the second half of August 2014, Russia dramatically escalates its operations against Ukraine, launching an offensive in Novoazovsk, southeast Ukraine. This maneuver opens up a second front in the conflict and secures a Russian-controlled land bridge between the Russo-Ukrainian border and the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.”

While the offensive in Novoazovsk would be a step in building a land bridge to the Crimea, it is only a step. Such a landbridge has not yet been established.

(4) Emily Tamkin, “Sorry, Did We Invade Your Country?” Slate, September 5, 2014.

(5) “Timeline: Ukraine’s political crisis; Key events in Ukrainian anti-government protests that have been followed by political upheaval and international crisis, Al Jazeera English, September 20, 2014 (05:48 GMT).

The Trenchant Observer