Appropriate U.S. Response to Russia

November 1, 2016

Thomas F. Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)

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Post World War II history suggests convincingly that the best way to deal with Russian aggression is by demonstrating the strength and will to respond in a forceful fashion. Obvious examples are the strong manner in which President Kennedy dealt with Premier Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the way President Reagan interacted with Mr. Gorbachev at Reykjavik and in its aftermath as he laid the groundwork for the end of the Cold War and critical arms reduction agreements. Interacting with Mr. Putin, however, may well be even more challenging than dealing with either Khrushchev or Gorbachev as Putin gives all the indications of being the consummate bully. The only thing he understands or respects is strength and force, and little so far in the conduct of this Administration demonstrates the will power to take strong action. In fact time and again, the approach of “leading from behind” and “too little too late” has undermined whatever credibility we had with Mr. Putin at the beginning of 2009. Let’s review how we got to where we are currently in Ukraine and Syria.

To be fair to the current Administration, the preceding Administration had not provided a strong precedent, as it did little to prevent Russia under Medvedev from carving out South Ossetia and Abkhazia from the sovereign country of Georgia. But as Mr. Putin reclaimed the presidency of Russia in 2012, he had already observed 1) the absence of any supportive response from the Obama Administration to the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009, 2) the cancellation, under pressure from Russia, of a promised missile defense system in Poland, 3) very modest support for the French led actions surrounding the overthrow of Gadhafi in Libya in 2011, and 4) the total failure to enforce the red line drawn in Syria regarding the use by Assad of chemical weapons in 2012. Why wouldn’t Mr. Putin doubt our resolve and have no compunction or concern about taking the actions that he has in Ukraine and Syria?

Clear commitment to and demonstration of strength with only very judicious actual use of force are critical to convince the bullies of this world like Mr. Putin that the United States has the resolve and the ability to turn back inappropriate and irresponsible acts of aggression. I’ve had the privilege of listening many times to former Secretary of State George Shultz talk about how he and President Reagan chose to deal with such acts of unwanted aggression during the Reagan Administration. They, of course, took steps to restore our military strength, but they used very limited force only three times following the tragic bombing of our marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. We used a very modest amount of military force in Grenada very shortly after the Beirut bombing to rescue 300 Americans being held hostage there, we executed a surgical strike against Gadhafi in retaliation for an attack on our forces in Berlin in 1986, and in a very crisp response to mining activities by Iran in the Persian Gulf in 1987 we sank an Iranian ship that was deploying illegal mines after removing and immediately freeing all Iranian sailors on board. In all three instances a clear message was delivered. An attack on the United States and its allies will receive a proportionate response quickly and decisively.

Unfortunately, little that we have done so far with regard to Russian aggression in Ukraine or Syria has been either timely or appropriately proportionate. In Syria there was a point in time when one could discern the good guys from the bad guys and provide equipment, training, and support sufficient perhaps to enable the opposition to overthrow Assad. Creation of a “no fly zone” was an option recommended by a number of foreign policy experts, including former Secretary Clinton, but was never acted upon by the Administration. By the time we’d fiddled around for months and allowed the Russians to play the key role in negotiating the removal, supposedly, of all chemical weapons from Syria, we’d lost most of the leverage we might have had or been able to obtain, and Russia was in the driver’s seat in terms of protecting their friend Assad. ISIL/Islamic State has obviously complicated enormously the situation in Syria and clearly in Aleppo, but Russia has a very strong presence in Syria today and will be very hard to dislodge, largely because of “too little, too late” on our part. There is still some possibility, however, that it’s not too late to change the current course of events in Syria. A ‘no fly zone” and some sort of “safe-haven” enforcement could still improve the situation in Syria, but it will take resolve on our part and create risk of escalation that we have been unwilling to assume to date.

The situation in Ukraine is clearly very different. Putin’s aggressive actions to carve up and usurp as much of Ukraine as he can is all part of his longer range aspiration to recreate substantial parts of the Soviet Union or at least reestablish Russian influence, if not total dominance, in these neighboring countries. Our pathetically weak response to these actions in Ukraine have or will only encourage this type of aggression in the Baltic States initially and prospectively in other parts of Eastern Europe. Once again the impact of “too little, too late” is clearly being demonstrated. While our diplomats continue to participate in agonizingly unproductive discussions, Mr. Putin is shoring up his military positions in this greater theatre and will no doubt continue to use the excuse of protecting native Russians as he pursues his goals of territorial reclamation. As the remaining areas of Ukraine not yet under Russian control observe the lack of serious U.S. assistance in their plight, it must appear as though it is only a matter of time before they too are annexed by Russia.

Diplomacy and negotiation have been only very modestly successful at best to date with Russia relating to the terribly troubling developments in both Syria and the Ukraine. What incentive does Mr. Putin have to negotiate with us and our allies, when we demonstrate little evidence that we will back up our periodic threats with force. Recent shoring up and redeployment of NATO forces in the Baltics and Poland is a positive step, but we need to return to the Reagan-Shultz approach of saying what we mean in our interactions with Mr. Putin and being prepared to show that we mean what we say with decisive use of measured and proportionate force.

What Should be the U.S. Response to Russia in light of Russian and Syrian Government Attacks on Aleppo?

October 5, 2016

William J. vanden Heuvel (Ambassador to the United Nations European Office, 1977-1979)

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The security of the United States is unacceptably endangered without a cooperative respectful relationship with Russia. The problems that divide us cannot be solved by war.

The Charter of the United Nations obliges the Permanent Members of the Security Council to work together to prevent war. The Ukraine, Syria, the refugee and migration flow which threatens the stability of all of our European allies, the increasing threat of nuclear confrontation — all of these crises demand that diplomacy find a way to restore sanity to our deliberations and avoid a resumption of the Cold War. Those who have the power to make peace possible will bear the obloquy of history if war becomes their choice.

Syria’s “Surrogates R Us”

August 31, 2016

Marc Ginsberg (Ambassador to Morocco, 1994-1998)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Ginsberg’s August 30, 2016 worldpost piece in the Huffington Post.

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Sur-ro-gate: a substitute or deputy for a person in a specific role.

The crumbling, decrepit remnants of the Syrian state are overrun by the pestilence of so many mini-conflicts it is impossible to know who is fighting what at any hour of any given day, or which devastated rubble of a city or town is under control of what Sunni Islamist of Shiite faction or proxy of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the United States. Syria is a veritable cauldron of killing field upon killing field. One day a surrogate force is on one side, the next day, on the other — depending on the highest bidder and the gravest threat to their proxy hosts.

Syria’s butcher-in-chief — Bashar al-Assad — courtesy of Russia’s Putin, Iran’s Khamenei, and the terrorist group known as Hezbollah, has clung to power by controlling a sliver of territory around the capital, Damascus, while his beleaguered forces barrel-bomb and deploy poison gas (yes, poison gas) to subdue a civilian population not under his regime’s direct control into starvation and submission. That is what is taking place in Syria’s largest city of Aleppo.

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Be proud of state, nation: Register and vote

August 31, 2016

George Bruno (Ambassador to Belize, 1994-1997)

Cross-posted from the August 21, 2016 opinion column as published in the Shelbyville Times-Gazette

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Being a guest columnist, so far editor Sadie Fowler allows me to select my own topics. The rub comes when I must select a single topic and then energize my creative juices to produce the column.

I had settled on my next subject before Sunday morning when I read the T-G front page article about our state having the worst voter turnout at elections. Our registration of eligible voters isn’t much better. Thank you, John Carney, for selecting my topic.

The decisions our Founding Fathers made over 200 years ago regarding the form of government for our new nation were truly revolutionary in world history. (In Ancient Greece, democracy appeared in cities rather than in national government but was unable to survive.)

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Summer Doldrums. Not Quite.

August 3, 2016

Antonio O. Garza (Ambassador to Mexico, 2002-2009)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Garza’s August 2016 newsletter.

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It should be the summer doldrums, but the news out of Mexico hasn’t quite slowed down.

One of Mexico’s biggest stories was the debate, passage, veto, and then re-passage of the country’s anti-corruption package. These seven bills were designed to put legislative meat on the bones of the 2015 anti-corruption reform, and will greatly assist in coordinating corruption fighting across government institutions. The final package stopped short of embracing every part of the civil society written and backed Ley 3de3 (which would have forced government officials to publicly declare their assets, conflicts of interest, and tax records), but it did create what has been called “the most encompassing system to identify and sanction corruption that the country has ever had.”

In more welcome anti-corruption news, the Peña Nieto administration filed legal challenges this month against the governments of Veracruz, Quintana Roo, and Chihuahua for reforms that would have shielded outgoing governors from corruption investigations. These states are facing federal inquiries over financial irregularities under the governors’ tenures. And in the case of Veracruz, for at least twenty-six phantom companies that received some US$1 billion in unaccounted funds. Read the rest of this entry »

Elie Wiesel Was the World’s Moral Compass

July 6, 2016

Ronald S. Lauder (Ambassador to Austria, 1986-1987)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Lauder’s July 5, 2016 special to Fortune.

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Thirty years ago, I traveled to Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel. I had been to the camp before. I had seen the barbed wire, the barracks, the guard towers. I had stood in the gas chambers where a generation of Jewish children perished as the hands of evil. But to experience Auschwitz through Elie’s eyes, through the eyes of the man who taught the world about the horrors of the Holocaust, changed everything for me. It changed the way I think, and it lit a flame in me that burns to this day.

Elie once observed that the survivors of the Shoah “had the right to give up on humanity.” But Elie refused to give up. When I joined him at Auschwitz, I found a man not filled with hate, but with sadness and determination. Sadness over all those who were lost, and determination to honor their memory with action and impact.

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More Uncertainty but Message Clear: “Fix It”

July 5, 2016

Antonio O. Garza (Ambassador to Mexico, 2002-2009)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Garza’s July 2016 newsletter.

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This past January, I wrote that the coming year would be one characterized by our “Living with Uncertainty”. Looking back, while it was clear that this year would be tumultuous, I certainly misunderestimated what was to come.

It’s hard not to start with Brexit, when 52 percent of the United Kingdom’s voters chose to break with the European Union.  The vote marks the first departure from the grand European project, tacking an uncharted course for the United Kingdom and for the continent. But the contentious vote was really the easy part. The next two years will be filled with the tougher steps—sitting through painful negotiations, designing a brand new state framework, and calming jittery markets that are concerned with the future of both the United Kingdom and a strong and peaceful Europe.

The anger is not just a United Kingdom and United States phenomenon; voters around the world are frustrated. And Mexico is no exception.

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Brexit Hangover: A Field Guide for Americans

June 24, 2016

Marc Ginsberg (Ambassador to Morocco, 1994-1998)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Ginsberg’s June 24, 2016 special to the Huffington Post.

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The political and financial impact of yesterday’s “Brexit” vote will have long-lasting and profound implications for the U.S. presidential campaign, for U.S. – European relations, and for Europe itself. Once the Brexit proponents finish downing their champagne, the hangovers will settle in, for certain. They know not what they doneth.

Shockingly, the Brexit tally vote defied the sure money touted by London’s bookies. They were long and wrong on the odds, but the sure loser was Prime Minister Cameron; his bet was fatal – both to his political career and to a united United Kingdom. After all, the Brexit referendum was Cameron’s political miscalculation, who in a desperate moment of political lunacy succumbed to demands to appease rebellious Tory Euro-skeptic back-benchers and agreed to hold this ill-conceived referendum. Before his nation in front of 10 Downing Street, Cameron, his lips quivering, emotionally threw in the towel and spitefully resigned his office. Why? No one knows. Was his resignation really necessary in the heat of the moment?

As a result of the vote, the grave consequences to Britain’s political system and economy will reverberate for years – all in the name of abiding anti-immigrant sentiment in England and throttling the pesky, red-tape laden Brussels bureaucrats in the European Union’s redoubt. Revelers are rejoicing over the hopeful return of British sovereignty, but the end of 40 years of EU membership do not come without a price – and not just for the Brits.

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Mexico: It’s not (just) a PR problem, It’s the corruption

June 2, 2016

Antonio O. Garza (Ambassador to Mexico, 2002-2009)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Garza’s May 26, 2016 newsletter.

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It’s been nearly a year since President Enrique Peña Nieto pushed through a series of anti-corruption focused constitutional amendments.

These well-received reforms established a National Anti-Corruption System (to coordinate national, state, and local efforts), gave teeth to the Superior Auditing Office, and made the Federal Tribunal of Administrative Justice an independent court. However, passing these reforms was merely the first step. Members of Congress gave themselves twelve months (until this upcoming May 28th) to write and approve the necessary secondary legislation. Yet with the deadline rapidly approaching, the completed bills are still nowhere in sight.

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How did Trump learn to love ‘the bomb’?

May 5, 2016

Thomas A. Loftus (Ambassador to Norway, 1993-1997)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Loftus’ May 4, 2016 op-ed in the Cap Times.

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In the film “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” there is a scene near the end as bombs have been launched and Armageddon is looming where U.S. President Merkin Muffley, in a meeting with Russian Ambassador de Sadesky, learns that Russia has been building a “doomsday machine.”

The Russian ambassador says: “Our doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we’ve been spending on defense in a single year. … We learned that your country was working along similar lines and were afraid of a doomsday gap.” The U.S. president incredulously responds: “This is preposterous. I’ve never approved anything like that.” Ambassador de Sadesky says: “Our source was The New York Times.”

In an interview on foreign policy with the NYT in March, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump suggested that in order for the U.S. to save money on defense, perhaps Japan and South Korea should become nuclear powers and defend themselves.

In his recent foreign policy speech Trump elaborated: “The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense — and if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves.”

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