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Reactions to the Proposed Syrian Withdrawal

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Trump dropped a bombshell with his surprise order for a withdrawal of US troops from Syria, the draw-down of troops in Afghanistan, and the resignation of his Secretary of Defense.

But surprisingly, Trump’s view of the Syrian conflict closely resembles Obama’s, i.e., that the US had no serious interest, either economic or strategic, in the conflict.

Recall that Obama was often criticized by our Middle East allies for refusing to commit ground troops to the battle, authorizing only limited numbers of technical advisors, along with air support.

Obama’s stance was often attacked by his critics as ‘arms-length combat.’ But that could also be said for EU allies France and UK, that made the least minimal commitments, with France and the UK providing no more than 500 troops, total, and Germany refusing to take any part in the conflict.

Even at that, Obama’s war focus wavered badly, from initially supporting the Saudi and UAE, while arming and training “moderate jihadists” as a proxy-warriors to overthrow Assad.

When many of these moderate rebels turned out to be not so moderate, with some breaking ranks to join ISIS, the US reversed focus to support the Kurdish militia, the most effective fighters against both the moderate jihadists and ISIS, fighting in support of the Assad regime.

Obama, like Trump, correctly saw that the main threat to stability in the middle east was the growth of the radical jihadist, ISIS, that occupied large areas in East Iraq and Syria, while, intent on building similar outposts in Africa.

US neo-cons and cold warriors were stunned at Trump’s withdrawal announcement, as their dream for regime change in the Middle East utterly collapsed.

Their long-held view that regime change could turn back the clock to a time when the West colonized the regions and stripped their natural resource assets was totally discredited and belied by the experiences in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria.

If we learned anything from Vietnam, and disastrous wars that followed, that it’s long past time for conquering and exploiting poor countries. Even without modern weapons, devoid of air force or navy, their people will fight on against, against impossible odds, eventually wearing down the would-be conquerors by forcing them to spend fortunes in lives and treasure until they are finally forced to declare victory and slink home.

After seventeen years in Afghanistan, in a never-ending war, even our military has come to the conclusion that this war is unwinnable. Like Vietnam, the war always lacked the essential ingredients for victory in terms of an established, effective government that held the loyalty of its countrymen, and military force capable of protecting the country.

In their absence, the US has been forced into taking over the fighting on its own, as it did in Korea,  Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  Without a negotiated settlement, the war will likely continue indefinitely. The same could be said of Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

In the movie,“W,” about the younger Bush Administration and it’s march to war in Iraq, there is a revealing scene in which the character portrayed as VP Cheney goes to a map of the middle east, aims his pointer at all the region’s countries, saying, “If we took all the countries in the area and controlled their oil, who would f..k with us then?”

The character portrayed as Colin Powell responds, “Spoken like a true oil man.”

Although the movie is only a dramatic portrayal, we would lay odds that conversations like the one portrayed in the movie frequently took place amongst the real-life players. Recall McCain during his Presidential campaign, outrageously singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Or consider the long-time slogan of the neo-cons,

“Real men go to Tehran.”

What that long line of interventionist wars clearly showed were that these countries were more than willing to defend themselves against the occupying forces. And these guerrilla wars by much weaker countries against far more powerful imperialists invaders could go on for many years, in a war of attrition, draining the resources of their western rulers until, eventually, until they were forced to retreat. Afghanistan is a prime example, with the US war ongoing for seventeen years.

Not surprisingly, Trump was attacked for failing to heed the warnings of his chief military advisor, Secretary of Defense, Mattis, who resigned, setting off a major controversy. And while the media continued to lambast the President and laud the General for his integrity.

Widely ignored by most of the media that Mattis was also formerly fired from his post as head of Centcom by the Obama Administration for allegedly attempting to provoke a conflict with Iran, aimed at undermining the Administration’s efforts to negotiate the freeze on Iran’s nuclear development.

Also ignored is the fact that Trump followed the advice of Gen. Curtis Michael “Mike” Scaparrotti, the highly respected head of the U.S. European Command, who publicly stated that the US had little interest at risk in Syria, and that our support for the Kurds threatened our relations with NATO member Turkey, an alliance considered far more politically important than with the Kurds.

The media also failed to notice that prior to the President’s announced troop withdrawal from Syria, that Russia had successfully negotiated a 60 mile pull back of Iranian troop from Syria’s southern border, aimed at easing tensions and lowering the threats towards Israel.

Also ignored by the western press was at the recent meeting in Abu Dhabi between US special envoy, Khalizad, and the Taliban, where, for the first time, a high level US representative declared that the US was ready to withdraw its military forces if there was a meaningful and verifiable peace settlement, with a guarantee that Afghanistan would no longer be a staging grounds for terrorists attacks on its neighbors or the west.

In attendance at the meeting were representatives of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirate, in support of the US position, urging the reluctant Taliban towards direct negotiation with the current Afghan government.

Pakistan’s leadership also gave added support to the meeting. Few middle eastern analysts believe that the Taliban would be willing to reject the US terms, that answers their own demands for a US withdrawal, particularly when backed by the Taliban’s former benefactors.

Instead, the military establishment unloaded its biggest weapon to panic the public, as Senator Lindsey Graham reported to an unconvinced public ‘that the announced troop withdrawal could lead to another 9/11.’ Shades of Colin Powell’s famous address to the UN where he attempted to justify the US attack on Iraq, with pictures of an atomic mushroom cloud emanating from Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons.

Despite the news blitz by the military and its media friends of dire consequences for withdrawal, their remains few alternatives besides a permanent presence of US troops, as US public opposition continues to grow against the long and unending interventionists wars in the Middle East and Eurasia.

The military establishment’s opposition to the withdrawal was largely expected and taken for granted, but more surprising was the concerted attack by many left-wing spokes people and their media associates. Senator Elizabeth Warren was the left’s only representative to agree to the withdrawal, although she also condemned the President for not alerting our allies.  It left one wondering where the left’s peace movement has gone or if it still exists.

Against this there is a catastrophic history that cannot be denied. While jobs and industries were disappearing from our borders, our leaders engaged in decades long wars in the Middle East and Eurasia, where the discredited neo-con strategy of regime change, based on faked intelligence and false flags, has left in its wake the wreckage of fallen states, the blow-back of global terrorism, and an enormous refuges crisis, to say nothing of the waste of lives and treasure.

A final question: Does our fury against Trump blind us to our own long-term interests?

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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