General David Petraeus 

                                                                    Image of Moscow and Washington via

                                            Mideast Security and Policy Studies No. 135

The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies is an independent, non-partisan think tank conducting policy-relevant research on Middle Eastern and global strategic affairs, particularly as they relate to the national security and foreign policy of Israel and regional peace and stability. It is named in memory of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, whose efforts in pursuing peace lay the cornerstone for conflict resolution in the Middle East.

Executive Summary 

 Behind the ongoing media frenzy, America seems deeply divided over whether to pursue a hard line with Russia or to cooperate with it. With Donald Trump favoring the latter course, Moscow “voted” for him in the 2016 elections. But the Kremlin’s cybernetic interference in the election has led to ongoing Russo-gate and efforts by President Trump’s foes to paint him as a Manchurian candidate.  As Trump replaces Obama’s misconceived policy of strategic patience with proactive strategic savvy, the question of US future policies remains open. Seeking answers requires a fundamental reexamination of Washington’s 21st century Middle East wars, where at every turn Russian-American relations formed the hidden context.

The story began in 2001-2002, when new presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin formed a successful partnership during the post 9/11 war against Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan – only to see it unravel over the course of the two superpowers’ interventions in the Middle East and Russia’s interference in Georgia and Ukraine.

 Personality has played a key role in the vicissitudes of US-Russian relations. Contrary to his common image as a KGB “stone cold killer,” Putin has shown himself to be “a cold calculator of Russian national interests” (to use Henry Kissinger’s words), a Christian autocrat who, like the tsars earlier, uses terror selectively against enemies of the state. By contrast, Presidents Bush and Obama were primarily ideologically 8 I Washington and Moscow: Confrontation or Cooperation? driven in their Middle East wars, seeking democratic regime change for people living under oppressive dictatorships. Unfortunately, the fall of dictatorships in Iraq and Libya generated jihadist chaos and political disintegration and worsened Washington’s relations with Moscow, which felt misled into supporting the Libyan intervention. The result was the intensification of Russian support for Bashar Assad’s beleaguered regime in Syria.

 In 2013, when Obama reneged on his chemical weapon red line in Syria, Putin got a first-hand indication of what “strategic patience” really meant. Thus, when Moscow’s corrupt client, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by popular revolt, Putin responded with the 2014 bloodless invasion of Crimea. A year later he saved Assad with an unprecedented military intervention.

 Given this less than exemplary record of US foreign policy, one can only hope that President Trump and his seasoned national security team can establish fruitful deal-making with Putin. Should Russo-gate lead to impeachment, however, American power will be dangerously weakened (as happened with Richard Nixon). This would significantly increase the likelihood of future confrontation with Moscow


“It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war who can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.” – Sun Tzu 

 On April 6, 2017, US President Donald J. Trump took the unprecedented step of launching a cruise missile strike against a Syrian air base in retaliation for Bashar Assad’s use of poison gas against civilians, including children and infants. 

The strike came after a small US task force landed in eastern Syria with the stated goal of smashing Islamic State (ISIS). Until that point, Moscow believed Trump was amenable to leaving Assad temporarily in place, unlike his predecessor, whose nominal priority was regime change. After the missile strike, the Russians were left to wonder what Trump’s foreign policy really was.

 Trump’s action was not just a response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It must be situated within the domestic controversy over Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election, including the theft and release of Democratic Party emails, and connections between the Trump campaign and Russian entities. The fierce post-election debate over Syria is also linked to the unprecedentedly harsh debate over whether America’s policies towards Russia and Syria should involve confrontation or cooperation. The missile strike did not answer that question for either Moscow or Washington, but in March 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that American strategic patience was over with regard to both North Korea and Iran.1 On May 19, 2017, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, Ret. General James Mattis, declared a new strategy aimed at eliminating ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. How will the new strategy affect Washington’s relationship with Moscow in the Middle East as well as the continuous conflict in Ukraine? Answering this question requires a fundamental reexamination of US foreign policy over the past two decades, where at every turn Russian-American relations formed the hidden context.


The Clinton and Bush years 

At the turn of this century, new elected Russian president Vladimir Putin genuinely sought to enlist US support for a second Chechen war. Terrorism was the hook.

 President Bill Clinton and his principal Russian hand, Strobe Talbott, met Putin in September 1999 at a summit in New Zealand. Clinton would recall how avidly Putin thanked him for supporting Russia, despite rising international criticism of the Chechen bloodshed. But when the US president urged humanitarian measures, Putin drew a map on a napkin, detailing how recent actions in Dagestan represented not just a resumption of the war, but “the beginning of an invasion of Russia.” Nor was it just “Chechen bandits” who were involved, “but the forces of international Islamic terrorism.”2

 Putin knew about the al-Qaeda attacks against US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in the fall of 1998, which had killed 224 people. Thirteen days after the attacks, Washington had launched retaliatory cruise missiles at al-Qaeda targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. Putin’s problem, however, was that al-Qaeda was not fully on America’s radar. Saddam Hussein was still perceived as the main threat. With bipartisan support, Clinton had signed the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, authorizing regime change.

 Talbott saw Putin masterfully calculating Russia’s national interests and articulating them to his American “partners.” Henry Kissinger, too, viewed Putin as “a cold calculator of Russia’s national interests,” a character out of Dostoevsky with “a great sense of connection, an inward connection, to Russian history.”3  To read the rest click here.  


                                                                          Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta

Published by the  BESA Center For Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Israel.,   Perspectives Paper   No. 418, March 6, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The FBI has concluded that ousted National Security Advisor (NSA) Mike Flynn’s contact with Russian ambassador Sergei Kisliak was not, in fact, illicit. Prior NSAs, aware that the Kremlin can influence close elections, have courted its “vote” for their candidates. Flynn acted as his predecessors did while protecting his back channel and his loyalty to Trump. The ongoing witch-hunt is emblematic of an unprecedented political power struggle in the US that reflects widely divergent policies toward Russia, the Middle East, and Ukraine.                                  

Why was General Mike Flynn, Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, fired? Did he do anything out of the ordinary by communicating with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during and shortly after the 2016 elections?

Former Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, as well as former acting KGB resident in America Oleg Kalugin, have both revealed in their memoirs that during close US presidential elections there were debates in the Kremlin about whom to “vote” for. The preferred candidate was whichever of the contenders was the less menacing for Russia and had the greater potential to unleash a new era of partnership. Moreover, aides to US presidential candidates have been known to actively court the Kremlin’s favor on behalf of their candidates. Election tampering goes in both directions.    

As Dobrynin describes in In Confidence, in the tight 1968 elections, he viewed Democrat Vice President Hubert Humphrey as far preferable to the Republican candidate Richard Nixon, whom he described as “an anti-Soviet, Cold War warrior.” Based on Dobrynin’s reports, the Kremlin took the “unprecedented” step of “secretly” offering Humphrey financial aid. Dobrynin conceded that this was a “dangerous venture … if discovered it would have certainly backfired.”

Humphrey wisely turned the offer down, satisfying himself with “Moscow’s good wishes,” and never revealed it to anyone. Why did he not inform the FBI of the offer? Because had he done so, Nixon would have labeled him the Manchurian candidate.

But Humphrey was not the Soviets’ only choice. In The First Directorate, Kalugin reveals, “We in the KGB took a different view … We liked Nixon,” who could “take giant steps” towards improving Soviet-US relations. The reason for this, as the former KGB official explains, was that “no one could accuse Nixon of being soft on communism.” Kalugin had his man, Boris Sedov, develop a back channel with Henry Kissinger. Sedov then conveyed to the Kremlin that Nixon should be their man in Washington.   

As the election approached, however, Humphrey was still the Kremlin’s choice. And so, as Clark Clifford showed in Counsel to the Presidents, Humphrey’s chief fan in the Kremlin, Premier Alexei Kosygin, helped Lyndon B. Johnson instigate an “October Surprise.” On October 30, 1968, LBJ, acting in concert with the Kremlin, agreed to a ceasefire in Vietnam. Meanwhile, Kosygin prodded Hanoi to open negotiations in Paris with the US and Saigon. Peace now beckoned – and with it, perhaps, a Humphrey victory.

But Nixon correctly interpreted Johnson’s move as a political stunt and torpedoed it. He instructed his emissary to persuade the South Vietnamese government not to participate in the negotiations on the grounds that they would get a better deal if Nixon was elected. Nixon thus squeezed out an election victory. Sedov continued meeting with Nixon’s aide, Richard Allen, for the next two years.

During the 1976 elections, the Kremlin had a slight preference for Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, who was a known quantity. However, on October 30, 1976, Ford’s NSA, General Brent Scowcroft, felt compelled to inform Dobrynin why the president had sent a virtual ultimatum to the Kremlin demanding that it permit Jewish emigration from the USSR. He revealed apologetically that, following Carter’s example, Ford had yielded to the demands of American Jewish leaders and asked Dobrynin for “patience and understanding for another 48 hours, until this madhouse is over.” After November 2, he promised, “everything was going to be back to normal.”

But Carter won, and the “madhouse” continued. Carter’s human rights policy would plague the Kremlin for the next four years.

Fast forward to March 1979. Richard Allen again courted the Kremlin, this time on behalf of Ronald Reagan. So did Scowcroft. Allen, drawing “a parallel between Reagan and Nixon,” indicated that a reset of the superpowers’ relationship was likewise possible under Reagan. Scowcroft advised that if the USSR “gave no trumps to Carter,” Reagan had a good chance of winning.

On October 16, 1980, Zbigniew Brzezinski came courting for Carter. He promised Dobrynin that Carter would adopt a soft line toward Moscow’s clients Angola, Vietnam, and Cuba. A US-Sino military alliance was also “absolutely out of the question.’’ The message was clear: Moscow should do nothing to diminish Carter’s election chances “and might even help a bit.”

On October 22, it was Kissinger’s turn. Now a private citizen, but acting with Reagan’s consent, he told Dobrynin that “The Reagan camp was fairly confident of victory absent some last minute surprise.” Moreover, Reagan “was not the mad, anti-Soviet right-winger” they may have thought he was.

In the end, the Kremlin “voted” to “stay on the fence.” Reagan won the elections and eventually embarked on a reset with Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 2012, President Barack Obama did his own marketing, promising outgoing President Dmitri Medvedev that “After my election I [will] have more flexibility.” Meanwhile, Mitt Romney declared that Russia “is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe,” a viewpoint that was openly mocked by Obama. The Kremlin’s “vote” was for Obama, although Putin was already blaming Hillary and her State Department for provoking protests during Russia’s December 2011 parliamentary elections.

In 2016, Hillary’s hacked e-mails revealed her as having been a major proponent of arming the rebels who killed Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. As former defense secretary Robert Gates concluded in Duty, the Russians, who lost Libyan oil contracts, realized they had been tricked. They had not blocked a NATO intervention in Libya because it had been sold to them at the UN as a “humanitarian” effort to rescue civilians during the country’s civil war.

In 2015, having learned that Washington had been arming Syrian rebels against his client, Bashar Assad, Putin intervened militarily in Syria. He had watched Iraq and Libya become failed jihadist states after the deaths of their dictators, and was resolved to save Assad. It was not just oil contracts and future pipelines that were at stake, but also Russia’s heavy investments in upgrading Syria’s Port of Tartus.

The turning point may have come in the summer of 2016, when Hillary associate  Mike Morell, her likely CIA Director had she won, advocated “killing Russians” in Syria. In marked contrast, Donald Trump expressed a desire to work jointly with Moscow against the Islamists. Thereafter, the Russians sought to help Trump, their preferred candidate.

The unprecedented witch-hunt of Flynn-gate, now extended to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is symptomatic of the enormous political power struggle in Washington, coupled with the deepening crisis of confidence in national institutions. It is also related to persistent divisions within US government bureaucracies over American relations with Russia, Syria, and Ukraine.

The new NSA, Gen. H.R. McMaster, can be expected to try to bridge these differences within a new unified framework. We recommend that the Trump administration not contemplate the lifting of sanctions without linking them to the conflicts in both Syria and Ukraine, and insisting on Russia’s compliance with the Minsk agreements.

The purge of Flynn is only the hors d’oeuvres. The calls for Sessions’s resignation and for the naming of a special prosecutor indicate that the sharks are hoping for the chef d’oeuvre – Trump – as the Manchurian candidate.

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Dr. Jiri Valenta and his wife, Leni, are the principals of The Institute of Post Communist Studies and Terrorism ( They are authors of a forthcoming book on Russia and US interventions in the 21st century. A prominent author and speaker, Jiri served for decade as a professor and coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies at the US Naval Post-Graduate School and former consultant to senior members of Reagan administration.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.



                                           Dr. Jiri Valenta with Leni Friedman Valenta 

PUBLISHED BY THE BESA CENTER  FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES,  Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv​, November 28, 2016                           

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: A pragmatist like Reagan, President Trump will face three urgent foreign policy issues: renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal with a US-Israel military option and Russia’s acquiescence; resolving the human catastrophe in Syria in partnership with President Putin; and a Great Bargain with Putin on the Ukraine. At home, Trump’s challenge will be to bridge bitter political and racial divides. Establishing bipartisan commissions on the Middle East and Russia might help. So would the appointment of the non-partisan General David Petraeaus as Secretary of State.

In the run-up to the US presidential election, the mainstream media, the democratic campaign, and even some Republicans repeatedly warned of the supposed endangerment of the US national interest by the apparent affinity between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. But how real is this threat? And wouldn’t American-Russian collaboration be conducive, rather than detrimental, to Washington’s international standing?

This is not a wholly far-fetched scenario. In his June 2001 meeting with President George W. Bush, Putin, seeking America’s support for the war in Chechnya, warned of an imminent attack on the US by al-Qaeda, then nesting with the Taliban. While this warning seemed to have been ignored, the two presidents developed a genuine strategic partnership after the 9/11 attacks against the Islamist foe in Afghanistan. Most essential was Russia’s arrangement of over-flight rights and logistical support for American forces through Central Asia. Had Washington finished the war in Afghanistan rather than proceed to Iraq, Putin, who found Bush “a decent man… someone with whom he could do business,” might have even sought NATO membership, as he rhapsodized in a BBC TV interview.

As events transpired, however, with the American intervention in Iraq creating a dangerous power vacuum that was eventually filled by Islamic State (IS), and with NATO embarking on what Putin perceived as a dangerous expansion toward the Russian border, he began to speak about a new “encirclement” of Russia. In August 2008, Putin invaded Georgia, ostensibly to protect two breakaway, Russian-speaking provinces, but also to regain valuable Georgian coastline (Abkhazia) that had been lost with the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Then, despite President Obama’s backing of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “reset” of US-Russian cooperation, relations quickly soured. As former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who opposed the 2011 intervention, put it, “The Russians firmly believed they were deceived on Libya” by the expansion of the NATO intervention from the protection of civilians to the toppling of the Qaddafi regime, with the attendant loss of many Russian military and economic contracts. “They would subsequently block any future resolutions, including against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.”

“If Libya breaks up and al-Qaeda takes root there,” Russian Prime Minister Dimitri Medvedev warned, “the extremists will end up in the north Caucasus.” After Qaddafi was killed and Libya disintegrated into an amalgam of rival Islamist militias, with weapons of the fallen regime exported to terror groups abroad and throngs of migrants using the country as a springboard for crossing into Europe, Putin was determined to ensure the survival of the Assad regime. Apart from shoring up Russia’s foremost regional ally vis-à-vis the US, which had made its removal a top priority, Moscow was heavily invested in refurbishing the port of Tartus and planned energy pipelines through Syria.

By the time of the US presidential campaign of 2015-16, Putin had concluded that, given Hillary’s foreign policy record in general and the Libya misadventure in particular, he could not work with her as president. He was likely aware of Trump’s Reagan-like strategy of reestablishing peace through strength by rebuilding the US military while at the same time rejecting large-scale foreign interventions aimed at regime change and nation-building and seeking cooperation and partnership with Russia. Reagan’s actions were rooted in pragmatism, not ideology. Trump seems to display a similar pragmatism, as well as a relatively positive view of Putin.   

Rather than fight Russia, Trump must, and likely will, recognize that his most immediate task in the Middle East is to seek great power collaboration in ending the “geopolitical Chernobyl” that is the Syrian civil war (to use General David Petraeus’s words). The war is an Islamist hotbed radiating across the Middle East and attracting young jihadists from around the world. Even before his inauguration, the president-elect should present Putin with proposals for a joint Syrian policy. They should include: a) the immediate cessation of air attacks on the city of Aleppo; b) the creation of enclaves to protect innocent civilians, to be established with UN and international support; c) the removal of all Islamist groups from Syrian territory; d) a declaration of amnesty for anti-Assad resistance groups; e) a declaration of the Syrian regime’s readiness to cooperate with non-jihadist rebels in forming a unified government; and f) a purge of Assad generals found guilty of crimes against civilians.

Eventually, Assad will have to be replaced with another, more acceptable, Alawite figure (the Alawites are essential for the protection of Syrian Christians). The Sisyphean and enormously costly rebuilding of Syrian infrastructure and civil society should become a multinational project with the participation of the UN, the great powers, the anti-Islamist Sunni governments, and perhaps even Israel.

It is essential that Trump recognize the unspoken linkage between the Syrian conflict and the Ukraine – his weakest foreign policy area. These conflicts will have to be approached separately and jointly at the same time, with tough deal-making required on both fronts.

Trump can begin with Henry Kissinger’s notion of the Ukraine as a bridge between Russia and the West, rather than a western bulwark. But the bridge must be bolstered by a Swiss-Austrian-type armed neutrality and US defensive arms. Trump was poorly advised to remove these arms from the GOP platform. Because Ukraine will never seek NATO membership, the arms will be used for strictly defensive purposes.

Trump has also highlighted his intention to revise, rather than shred, the nuclear deal with Iran. To accomplish this, he will likely reinstate a genuine military option for both the US and Israel, pending Tehran’s failure to live up to its provisions.

The new president will still be dealing with those bound by the traditional Cold War view that Moscow must be kept out of the Middle East and that containment of the Russian bear is preferable to persuasion. Here, too, he may be able to calm the naysayers by following in Reagan’s footsteps. While dealing with the then-controversial Central American issue that divided America in the 1980s, Reagan established a Bipartisan Commission on Central America, chaired by Kissinger, that helped to forge a national consensus. By taking similar action, Trump could benefit from the expertise of foremost authorities. One example would be General David Petraeus, who is not only a tested military commander but also a brilliant strategist. He can preside over US foreign policy-making as did General George Marshall in the late 1940s.

Trump is a new kind of president. He took on the entire establishment and prevailed. With his ascendancy, Americans can liberate themselves from self-imposed Cold War shackles. Partnership with Christian Russia is a necessary prerequisite for the saving of Western civilization, rooted as it is in Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Recall that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill forged a close alliance with Stalin against the Nazi threat. Putin, a Christian autocrat, is no Stalin. Remember Churchill’s famous quip: “If Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Americans would do well to remember which devils they can tolerate and which they must destroy.

Trump with H.R. McMaster.

Trump and General John Kelly (Homeland Security.


                           The Emerging Trump Doctrine of Strategic Savvy

                                                    By Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta

  Published by the  ​BESA Center;  Perspectives Paper No. 500, June 17, 2017

“…if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain.”
– Sun Tzu

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: “America will not lead from behind. America First does not mean America alone. It is a commitment to protecting and advancing our vital interests…” So wrote President Donald Trump’s NSA, General H.R. McMaster, with Gary Cohn, head of the National Economic Council, in the Wall Street Journal. What follows is a discussion of US leaders’ failed strategies in several wars, Trump’s team of generals, and the emerging Trump doctrine, which is here termed “strategic savvy”.

1964 Vietnam War; “Lies that Led to Vietnam”

Bullet-headed Lt. General H.R. McMaster, the US National Security Adviser, is not just a brave warrior. Like his mentor, General David Petraeus, he is a prominent military intellectual. Both men wrote their PhD dissertations on the lessons of Vietnam. In The American Military and the Lessons of Vietnam, Petraeus concluded, “…significant emphasis should be given to counterinsurgency forces, equipment and doctrine.” McMasters’s thesis, Dereliction of Duty, addressed the roles of LBJ and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. His subtitle was “Lies that Led to Vietnam.”

On August 4, 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was pushed through Congress authorizing military action against North Vietnam as “vital” to US national interests. It sought to punish Hanoi for an allegedly unprovoked attack by three torpedo boats on a US destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin. In fact, it had not been unprovoked; the US had made repeated prior attacks on the North Vietnamese coast.

The major reason for the American war against North Vietnam, asserts McMaster, was the then-upcoming 1964 presidential election. To Johnson, the prime enemy that summer was not the North Vietnamese but his GOP opponent, Barry Goldwater, who had accused the president of being soft on communism. In response, LBJ and McNamara misrepresented the facts and the pretext for sending US ground forces to Vietnam, and deliberately concealed the costs of war. McNamara’s thinking was shaped by his “whiz kids,” DOD civilian nerds, who lacked combat experience and arrogantly believed quantitative statistical analysis could compensate for their deficits in geopolitics, history, and military strategy.

Boasting that he had won his election “bigger than anybody had won ever,” LBJ endorsed McNamara’s strategy of gradual pressure on Hanoi, seeking to wear it down by “attrition.” To McMaster, this was “not a strategy but a lack of it … reinforcing arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest and above all dereliction of duty to the American people.”

2001 War of Necessity in Afghanistan

In this century, the one war the US won – at least in its initial stage – was Afghanistan. There, following the 9/11 attack on the US homeland, President George Bush defended America’s vital national interests. Nor was this a regular DoD operation by the US army. US forces consisted of CIA operators, Special Forces, and an anti-Taliban Afghan resistance, the Northern Alliance. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade was also involved, commanded by the current Defense Secretary, then Major General James Mattis, USMC. In addition, the US was given logistical help by Russian President Vladimir Putin, then Bush’s strategic partner. Within three months, the US had defeated its foe, liberated Kabul, and changed the regime.

2003 War of Choice in Iraq  

But afterwards, as Paula Broadwell observed, the initial brilliant success in Afghanistan “was squandered when the US marched headlong into Iraq in early 2003.” Instead of finishing the war of necessity in Afghanistan, Washington entered into a war of choice with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein – who had had nothing to do with 9/11.

Why? In the words of historian Jean Edward Smith, the president tried to sell the war on the basis of “the flimsy notion that he was removing a potential threat to the United States” because Saddam might have WMD. That threat proved to be nonexistent. In addition, as a born-again Christian, Bush believed he was divinely guided to bring democracy to the Iraqi people.

On August 4, 2002, the 38th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Senator Chuck Hagel, a distinguished Vietnam veteran, told Congress, “We didn’t ask any questions before we got into Vietnam … this is why it’s important to do so now.” Two senior members of Bush’s team did so: Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill, who questioned the costs of war in Iraq; and Secretary of State General (ret.) Colin Powell, who prophesied ethnic divisions and insurgency. Both were subsequently marginalized by the Bush administration.

Like McNamara, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his two principal assistants, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, lacked the combat experience necessary to make sound military decisions. In the end, the one who did have it – Powell – was proven right. He and Bob Richer, then head of the CIA’s Middle East Division, also blamed Bush’s NSA, Condoleezza Rice, for the subsequent attempt at instant democratic nation-building. As Richer explained, “Rice’s vision that Iraq had to look like us overnight was catastrophic.” The president, he observed, “was a realist, but he listened to her and was swayed.”

US forces were sufficient to topple Saddam following a major invasion. But instead of liberating the Iraqis, the Americans became hated occupiers. This gave rise to a Sunni insurgency, during which the US fired the Iraqi military without setting up a stipend program for the soldiers and their families (thus compelling them to subsist on nothing for five long weeks). The US then fired all Baath Party members down to Level 4 without any agreed reconciliation process. This gave tens of thousands of influential Iraqis – often Western-educated – an incentive to oppose the new Iraq rather than support it.

In the ensuing struggle over leadership, a virtual civil war erupted between Sunnis and Shiites, with Kurds in the mix as well – not to mention al-Qaeda, which was rising in the Sunni community in Iraq. The unfinished war in Afghanistan and the unending, Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq produced two growing insurgencies.

The Surge of Petraeus and his “Shipmate,” Mattis

Before he became, in early February 2007, Commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus worked with Mattis to lead a prominent team of US Army and Marine experts on an Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Referred to as “King David’s Bible,” this manual became an outstanding social science study of insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, as well as a guide to how to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis (and Afghans).

Those principles and techniques were applied by the forces under Petraeus in Iraq for over 19 months in 2007-08. The Surge, as the effort was known (due to the deployment of well over 25,000 additional American forces), ushered in a new strategy that was a 180-degree shift from the previous one, which had been assessed as failing in December 2006 by then-commander and ambassador Ryan Crocker.

The result was an 85% reduction in the level of violence and significant progress in a host of areas. President Bush deserves enormous credit for supporting the deployment of additional forces and for backing Petraeus and Crocker.

In late 2011, after some three years of further progress and additional reductions in violence, President Barack Obama decided to withdraw the remaining US combat forces and the last four-star US commander, leaving only a modest training mission.  He reportedly was concerned that there would not be an Iraqi parliament-approved Status of Forces Agreement. Iraqi PM Maliki subsequently pursued ruinous sectarian measures – orchestrating legal charges against the Sunni Arab Vice President and his security detail, and later targeting the Sunni Arab Finance Minister and a prominent Sunni Arab parliamentarian. He returned to Iraqi military and police units abusive Iraqi leaders whom General Petraeus had insisted be removed before US support would be provided, then had those forces put down peaceful Sunni demonstrations very violently. He stopped honoring agreements to provide various forms of assistance to tens of thousands of former Sunni insurgents who had reconciled with the government during the Surge.

Tragically, these actions undid much of what coalition and Iraqi forces had sacrificed to achieve, and the Sunni insurgency in Iraq began to rise again. Islamic State arose out of the ashes of the defeated al-Qaeda in Iraq.

2011: Obama‘s Leading from Behind in Libya

In 2011, to make matters even worse, Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, began to militate for yet another war, this time in Libya at the height of the “Arab Spring.” They did not heed Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s strenuous objections that it did not encompass “our vital national interests,” especially amidst two ongoing wars in the Middle East. Nor did Obama consider the war’s costs. Once again, the naysayer was ignored. Nine days later, Gates resigned.

Like LBJ and McNamara in Vietnam and Bush and Rice in Iraq, Obama and Clinton engaged in deceit about the real purpose of the war. Clinton argued that a NATO intervention was urgently needed to avert a massacre of Libyan civilians by Muammar Qaddafi’s troops. But her subsequently hacked e-mails substantiated that the real objective was regime change in the service of democratic nation-building.

After the rebels murdered Qaddafi, Libya, like Iraq earlier, became a paradise for tribal fighters and jihadists, and there ensued a significant flow of migrants to Europe. None of this chastened Clinton. She began to support secretly arming the Syrian rebels in a proxy war with both its dictator Assad and his patron, Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Obama’s Strategic Patience  

On June 11, 2011, Obama announced that he would withdraw 10,000 troops from Afghanistan by the end of December 2011 and the rest of the 30,000-member surge force by July 2012 (i.e., before the Democratic Party convention). Once again there arose a troublesome naysayer.

General David Petraeus objected to the premature withdrawal. Aware as he was of the actual situation on the ground, he was adamant that the projected timing of the draw-down would jeopardize the progress made in the previous year of the surge in Afghanistan. Obama was forced to compromise, but did not forget Petraeus.

Rahm Emmanuel, Obama’s chief of staff and one of the president’s loyalists, suspected that Petraeus was contemplating his own presidential run in 2016. It did not help that Petraeus emphatically told Emmanuel he wasn’t. Two days after the 2012 presidential election, Petraeus resigned his post as CIA director because of an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. (The mishandling of classified information did not surface until months later.) When historian Smith queried “whether the Obama administration had taken advantage of his affair to cut his head off,” Petraeus smiled, but did not reply.

Towards Strategic Savvy

If there is any solace for Washington’s numerous follies in the Middle East, it is Donald Trump’s selection of an outstanding national security team: Mattis, McMaster, and General John Kelly (Homeland Security). With Trump’s election, America saw the dawn of a new doctrine to replace “strategic patience,” leading from behind, and the absence of strategy. We call the new approach “strategic savvy,” meaning the judicious use of military force, diplomacy, and economic instruments. Petraeus describes it as a “comprehensive and sustainable commitment” in defense of American vital national interests. The president and his security team seek to overturn policies that have produced only failed states, Islamist-fed chaos, growing terrorist attacks in Europe, and catastrophic debt.

We have witnessed the first actions defining this emerging doctrine. On April 7, 2017, US navy destroyers carried out a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in retribution for Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his subjects. A tactical move, it bore profound strategic significance, since it used judicious force to accomplish what Obama had failed to do in 2013 despite his own declared red line. So did the dropping of the “Mother of All Bombs” (MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast), the largest conventional bomb in the US arsenal, on ISIS fighters in Afghanistan on April 14.

Facing what Mattis has called a “clear and present danger” from North Korea, Trump’s team did not put the problem off in the manner of the past three US administrations. He is meeting it head on with an unprecedented deployment of three carrier groups with massive naval and air power. This is intended to send a clear message on the need to stop a maniacal leader from accomplishing a nuclear weaponization and delivery system that could eventually reach American shores. President Trump has communicated this need to Chinese President Xi very clearly as well. The era of Obama’s “strategic patience” is finally over.

Future presidents should consider replicating Trump’s placement of national security responsibilities in the hands of individuals with combat experience. America’s future leaders should be men and women with such experience combined with intellectual prowess.

In the meantime, the saga continues. Americans are transfixed by Russo-gate, much as they were by Watergate. President Trump’s political opponents seek to undo the results of the 2016 election by painting him as Putin’s Manchurian candidate.

Trump should now do what Obama did not: pardon Petraeus, whom Gates called “one of the nation’s great battle captains.” As Senator Rand Paul observed, Petraeus showed his personal journals, which did contain classified material, to only one person, an Army reserve intelligence officer with a top secret clearance. Her book was thoroughly checked for classified information and any sensitive political items by the then head of West Point’s Social Sciences Department, Colonel Mike Meese. The negligent Hillary Clinton, still unpunished, revealed classified material to the multitudes through her unsecured server.

Petraeus sympathizes with the beleaguered Trump’s predicament, but only to a certain extent. Like the authors, he realizes that Trump, a novice at presidential politics, has made big mistakes and then repeated them, making things worse.

In his final address as a general, Petraeus quoted Teddy Roosevelt’s 1910 Men in the Arena speech. The words are now surely applicable to both of them:

It is not the critic who counts … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who errs and comes up short again and again … but who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions, who spends himself for a triumph of high achievement and … if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

The authors are indebted to General David Petraeus for his comments and suggestions.


Dr. Jiri Valenta and his wife, Leni, are the principals of The Institute of Post Communist Studies and Terrorism ( They are authors of a forthcoming book on Russia and US interventions in the 21st century. A prominent author and speaker, Jiri served for decade as a professor and coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies at the US Naval Post-Graduate School and former consultant to senior members of Reagan administration.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family​

Russian President Vladimir Putin

                                                                Oliver Stone and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Courtesy of Showtime

Tags:  Oliver Stone         Showtime         Vladimir Putin          "Putin Interviews"          Donald Trump           Putin-Trump Summit      Hillary        John McCain  


                                                                  Jiri Valenta

Perspective published by the BESA Center for Strategic Studies, Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Israel. Paper # 520, July 5, 2017

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The July 2015-February 2017 interviews with Vladimir Putin by US filmmaker Oliver Stone, now streaming on Showtime, provide surprising insights into the mind of the Russian leader. “We like President Trump,” Putin admits, recalling that during the election campaign Trump was open to a new relationship with Moscow. Further progress was stalled by Russo-gate. Trump should not buy Putin’s reasons for his Ukrainian and Syrian interventions, but would be wise to be open to renewing a limited partnership with Russia against Islamic terrorism and Pyongyang’s rogue regime.

President Trump must remind the Russian leader that his election intervention denials have been exposed as false, as US intelligence was able to record his June 2016 orders to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. However, he should also address Putin’s charges that twice – during the 2000 and particularly the 2012 Russian elections – Washington aggressively rallied the opposition and funded anti-Putin events. Putin also accuses US diplomats of supporting, controlling, and funding NGOs seeking to influence the outcome of elections. He thus implies that his interference in the 2016 US elections was payback of sorts.

“Dostoevsky character”

Henry Kissinger has described Putin as a “cold calculator of Russia’s national interest” and a “Dostoevsky character.” Indeed, much like Dostoevsky, the Russian president underwent a Kafkaesque metamorphosis from young, progressive revolutionary to conservative thinker and fierce defender of empire and orthodoxy.

Stone makes clear, however, that he does not know what to make of Putin’s repeated references to God or his stance as defender of the Orthodox faith, which the Russian leader addresses when he takes him into his private chapel at his dacha. In fact, Putin has genuinely embraced God, Russian orthodoxy, nationalism, and patriotism – but is humble about it. “I didn’t make the church popular … it was done by the Russian people,” he says. “The communist ideology ceased to exist and there was an ideological vacuum. The vacuum could be filled by nothing else but religion.”

Repudiation of chaotic Gorbachev-Yeltsin reforms After the 1989 East German revolution,

Putin, based in Dresden as a KGB lieutenant colonel, returned to his native city, St. Petersburg. At that time, Moscow maverick Boris Yeltsin and Putin’s former law professor, Anatoly Sobchak, were unleashing revolution from below in the form of free elections and economic reforms. Putin helped Sobchak become the city’s mayor and served as his deputy for foreign economic relations. He can thus raise a glass with Trump on the common ground of economics, investment, and trade. (It will have to be a non-alcoholic toast, as neither of them drinks.)

During the August 1991 coup, Putin joined Yeltsin and Sobchak in fighting the Communist putschists and resigned from the KGB. “I didn’t agree with the actions undertaken by the Communists in the attempted coup against Gorbachev,” he says. Moving to Moscow in 1996, he worked for Yeltsin in his legal department, finally becoming head of the FSB, the KGB’s successor. When Yeltsin became ill, he appointed Putin, known for his hard work and loyalty, as prime minister and then as acting president. “In four years I was acting president,” Putin recalls. It was “an incredible story.”

Eventually Putin concluded, however, that privatization and the transformation of Russia to capitalism under Yeltsin were too chaotic. Thus, he came to preside over state capitalism and a highly controlled market economic system. Trump should not be confused by Putin’s skillful selling of Russia as a genuine democracy. It is not.

“Russia should think about joining NATO”

An important issue covered in Stone’s interviews is how the new Cold War began. “In the 1990s,” Putin says, “we assumed the Cold War was over.” He recalls half-jokingly telling President Bill Clinton that “Russia should think about joining NATO.” Clinton responded, “Why not? I think it’s possible.” But when Clinton brought up the idea with his team, “They were bewildered and frightened.” Putin himself began to have misgivings. He ultimately concluded that “There are only two opinions in NATO: the American opinion and the wrong opinion.”

Nevertheless, Trump should explore closer cooperation between Moscow and NATO. Can the partnership with Russia that prevailed during the early George W. Bush years in Afghanistan be restored? And if so, how?

Against regime change

The above question must begin with an examination of American follies in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Like Trump, Putin did not agree with the US intervention in Iraq. “We had exact data there were no WMDs whatsoever in Iraq,” he says. “The most depressing thing is to change the regimes in that part of the world with the hope the next day there will be American-style democracy.” Americans were happy when the Libyan dictator was killed in 2011, but, as in Iraq, the war in that country became a catastrophe. Before Qaddafi’s death, there were few terrorists in Libya – but they came in as US-armed rebels, some of whom were jihadists, gained control of the country. Something similar could have happened in Syria, but the 2015 Kremlin intervention saved Assad from Qaddafi’s fate.

Putin, McCain, and “Carthago delenda est”

John McCain will be shocked if he watches the Stone interviews. Putin reveals another side of his character when he professes to like the perennial hawk. “I like him because of his patriotism, and I can relate to his consistencies in his own fighting for the interests of his country.” Putin cites the motto of Marcus Porcius Cato, the elder of ancient Rome: “Cartego delenda est [Carthage must be destroyed].” The wars between Rome and Carthage, he explains, were exploited by barbarians who took advantage of the feud and eventually succeeded in destroying Rome. The lesson? “If these cities had not fought one another and had agreed on fighting a common enemy … they would have both survived.”

By citing history in this way, Putin again makes the case for a new partnership with America. “We’ve been supporting the US fight for independence. We were allies in WWI and WWII,” he says. “Right now there are common threats we are both facing like international terrorism [the modern barbarians].”

Why Putin didn’t conclude a 2016 Syria agreement with Obama

The agreement on Syria with the Obama administration was that the two powers were supposed to perform strikes jointly there on designated terrorist targets. Putin blames the US for giving up on the agreement for political reasons. He also maintains that Moscow held discussions with the Obama administration on resolving the Syrian crisis, only to conclude in October 2016 that time had run out. The Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs would talk instead to the incoming US administration.

The “art of the deal” on Ukraine

Trump should not take seriously Putin’s explanation that the intervention in Georgia happened simply because of the aggressiveness of Georgian leader Saakashvili. This is only part of the story. Nor should he buy Putin’s convoluted expositions on the conflicts in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, both of which began with Russian military intervention. Trump should lift western sanctions only if Putin volunteers to withdraw his forces from Ukraine and to recognize its territorial integrity and neutrality.

On Israel and the Jews

Putin is perhaps the first Russian leader in history who is not anti-Semitic. He knows that some 40% of Israel’s Jews or their ancestors hail from Russia. He compares the initiators of Russo-gate to anti-Semites who always blame the Jews for their own failures. He clearly does not support the Palestinians, recalling former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s words: “Mr. President, right now you are in a region where no one can ever be trusted on any matter.”

For Trump it is America First. For Putin, it is Russia First

The crescendo of the interviews comes when Stone argues that he himself is neither pro-American nor pro-Russian; he is pro-peace. Putin lectures the Hollywood leftist, “…You’re a man of peace. And I am pro-Russian … You are too anti-American, and I don’t want to be dragged into it.” Clearly this is a message for Trump that Putin understands his strategy of “America First.” Trump defends his country’s vital national interests, and so does Putin. Russia First! The art of the deal is to reconcile the interests the two powers have in common. This will not be easy.

The North Korean crisis makes partnership with Russia a necessity

Putin does not reveal the details of his phone conversations with Trump on North Korea, which launched its first ICBM on America’s Independence Day. This move will likely be met by a strong, perhaps military, response by the US. But no matter what response Trump chooses, he will need Beijing’s and Moscow’s strong cooperation on both North Korea and Syria. Trump should use his skills at the art of deal-making to end the new Cold War with Putin. America and Russia need each other.​

                                                               Washington and Moscow:                                                      Confrontation or Cooperation?

                                                                  Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta


Secretary of Defense James ("Mad Dog") Mattis.