An Open Letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin


                                 Jiri and Leni Friedman Valenta

                                                   January 22, 2018

Published by the Jewish Policy Center, Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. President:

Thank you for publicizing that President Donald Trump and the CIA shared information that helped avoid a terrorist attack on St. Petersburg’s Kadansky Cathedral. This reminds us that at the June 2001 Slovenia summit, you shared information collected by Russian intelligence in Chechnya warning about an Al Qaeda attack on the United States. It is unfortunate the strong Russo-U.S. relationship of 2001-2002 has unraveled over time for many reasons – and we are reminded of the need to restore it.

Resolution of Syrian Conflict

In the interest of improving that relationship, we wish to briefly make known our views on certain policy issues, cognizant that others are reading this letter.  We do not speak for any governmental body.

As you know, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, having launched a covert war in Syria and supporting the rebels seeking to oust Asad, were on a path to war with Russia and Iran in Syria. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell even spoke of “killing Russians” in Syria. Why not share frankly the reasons for Russia’s 2015 intervention there?

Besides protecting your considerable investments, you saw the vacuum created by the killing of dictators in Iraq and Libya delivering power to the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. Surely, the removal of Asad would also have turned secular Syria into another jihadist hell.

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam in November, you and President Trump issued a joint statement on Syria. Sadly, the full summit was called off; as your adviser, Andrey Kortunov remarked, you and Russia are still “toxic” to Trump at home.

In your joint statement, you agreed that “there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria.” You committed to the Geneva process. You upheld the maintenance of Syria’s sovereignty and right to free elections under U.N. supervision. The two of you also agreed to cooperate on military de-confliction, a joint effort at the liquidation of ISIS, a review of cease fire agreements, safe de-escalation, and humanitarian measures. However, I am sure you would agree with Kortunov that the joint statement was “a step in the right direction, but collaboration remains situational, not strategic.”

You had reason to worry when Trump fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Asad’s Shayrat airfield to punish him for a second poison gas attack on civilians. (The first was in 2013). Wisely, you appear to have concluded that Trump, whether or not he believed Asad responsible for the attack, had to demonstrate that when it comes to red lines, he’s not Obama (who did not respond with force to the 2013 sarin gas attack).

Reports also indicate you are not at ease with the 2,000 U.S. troops still in Syria. Why not? Under Obama, the United States was covertly seeking to oust Asad. Trump redirected American forces and helped smash ISIS. America does plan to stay for a while, but to stabilize Syria in strategic collaboration with Russia.

However, on your surprise stopover at your Khmeimim airbase in Syria on Dec. 11, 2017, you claimed victory on behalf of Syrian dictator Asad’s forces, as Russia, with the help of Iranian personnel, has wrested control of most of the country from the Islamic State. Thus, you said you planned to send a “significant” part of your forces home. It was an odd move. In the United States, in light of past Russian pullouts including Leonid Brezhnev’s so-called withdrawals from Afghanistan, you were not entirely believed.

In any event, be frank: The civil war in Syria is by no means over, and Syria is economically devastated—loss of oil revenues, infrastructure, and shortages of food. Defeating an enemy is one thing; sustaining peace is another.

At present, U.S. and Russian forces must avoid accidents in a crowded Syria. This brings me to that incident over the Euphrates River in December when a couple of American F-22 Raptors almost butted heads with a pair of your Su Frogfoots.  Of course, they blamed each other. What’s new? Yet you must know that two weeks earlier, your side submitted an identical report on an event that the American side said never happened. We have to work together, or at least avoid each other.

Furthermore, there are actors in Syria besides Russians and Americans. These include Iranians, foreign rebels, Kurds, Turks and Saudis, not to mention Asad’s forces. The Kurds, loyal and successful U.S. allies, seek a homeland, i.e. a big chunk of Syria, and some U.S troops in Syria support the largely Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Battling the Kurds are the Turks, who, despite their support of jihadist forces, are still NATO allies. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his troops into Syria largely fearing successes of the Kurds could rouse separatist forces in eastern Turkey. But you and Trump have to think creatively about how to offer Kurds at least autonomy in the peace talks in Geneva, and perhaps a path to future independence – they are the balance to jihadists.

There is also the problem of finding a national leader to replace Asad, the much-hated leader of the Alawite minority.  Yet it remains important to you and Trump that Alawites protect Syria’s Arab Christians.

Unless you and Trump get together to negotiate directly and forge strategic cooperation between our countries the Syrian war will drag on for years.

Moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem

Syria does not exist in a vacuum. The neighbors are affected, and besides Turkey, one of these is Israel. Frankly, we are confused about where you stand on the U.S. decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the American embassy. You, yourself, recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, yet your diplomats have now attacked Trump for effectively doing the same.

Russia is friendly with both Israel and the PLO – of which the Palestinian Authority is a branch. Perhaps your diplomats can be helpful in negotiating an end to their conflict. The solution must include the right of Israel to control the Golan Heights without the presence of Hezbollah, Iran’s primary armed proxy.

Just this week we were horrified to discover that the Obama administration, while criticizing your support of Hezbollah, protected Hezbollah’s massive drug peddling and money laundering schemes in the Americas. But you were selling arms to Hezbollah drug kingpins. One, Ali Fayad, was indicted for plans to assassinate U.S. officials and attempting to acquire anti-aircraft missiles.

Possible Summit in Prague

President Putin, we frankly do not believe that the major threats to world order can be fully resolved without you and President Trump sitting together. Despite domestic politics and polarization at home, an open-ended summit should take place.

We suggest Prague, the capital of a NATO country, whose president, Milos Zeman, has friendly relations with both the United States and Russia.

We Need Each Other

The United States and Russia should strive to renew the anti-Islamist terrorist partnership. The attack on the Kadansky Cathedral was spoiled by a CIA tip and joint operations of American and Russian intelligence. But ISIS fighters and their violent sympathizers, defeated in Iraq and Syria, are not demoralized. Their jihad is spreading across the globe.

In the continuing war with jihadists, both our nations, while endowed with different faces of Judaic-Christian civilization, need each other to fight and eventually defeat not just Islamic terrorism but the evil ideology that underlies it.  Unfortunately, our president, constantly facing false charges of racism, cannot attack the new Nazis, as Winston Churchill, did the old ones, when he spoke of how “the civilized world so foolishly, so supinely, so insensately allowed the Nazi gangsters to build up, year by year from almost nothing.”

Author of Soviet Intervention in Czechoslovakia, 1968 (Johns Hopkins, 1991), and other books, Jiri founded the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies [ISEES] at the University of Miami in 1986. Valenta is a long-standing member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former professor and coordinator of Soviet and East European Studies at the U.S. Naval Post-Graduate School. He served with Natan Sharansky and Alan Dershowitz on the National Council on Soviet Jewry from 1976-87.

He is also the 2005 winner of the Jan Masaryk silver medal from the Czech Republic for his “contribution to preserving and promoting relations between Czech Republic and the United States of America,” while managing a Czech foreign ministry think tank under Vaclav Havel from 1991-93. Beside co-producing books on Czech national interests, Valenta proposed that the PLO embassy be closed as a terrorist center. The PLO published a booklet, Palestinska Otazka [Palestine Question] attacking Valenta and the Embassy remained open.

​​                       ​Ronald Reagan. (Image source: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)


                                                  Jiri and Leni Valenta

​                            BESA Perspectives, No. 755, February 28, 2018

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: “Intra-state strategic competition [with Russia and China], not terrorism, is the primary concern of US national security,” posits the DOD 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). But how justified is this focus shift from the ongoing fight against Islamist terrorism? And can Moscow and Beijing’s interest in defeating this common enemy be harnessed to this fight? Exploring President Reagan’s policies to terrorism and intra-state competition can provide some useful clues.

With the destruction of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, the US and its allies won an important battle, but not the global war. Many ISIS survivors have deployed elsewhere – from Yemen, to Sinai, to Libya – while the vacuum left by the organization’s downfall is being rapidly filled by al-Qaeda and its affiliates.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations control some 70 percent of the country’s territory, hardly the consolidation of US “gains in Afghanistan” claimed by the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS).

Meanwhile, the survival of North Korea’s WMD arsenal, and its continued defiance of the international community, bolster the anti-US network of terrorist rogue regimes – above all Iran and its Hezbollah proxy. To countries near US shores, like Nicaragua and Grenada before the 1983 US Invasion, Pyongyang committed the largest military resources after Moscow. In Syria, it helped the Assad regime build a nuclear reactor, only to have it destroyed by Israel in September 2007.

Given this lasting terrorist threat, and the growing geopolitical challenges from Russia and China, President Donald Trump might benefit from consulting the statecraft of the late president, Ronald Reagan.

As the eminent historian and former Reagan adviser Richard Pipes explained, the president “instinctively understood what all great statesmen do, what matters and what does not, what is right and what wrong for his country. This quality cannot be taught; like perfect pitch one is born with it.” History appears to have borne this out.

In 1986, US intelligence viewed Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi as the terrorist linchpin in both the Middle East and Western Europe, even supporting the IRA. On April 6, Libyan agents bombed a West Berlin discotheque, frequented by US servicemen. The large casualties firmed Reagan’s decision to respond with massive force (two navy aircraft carriers, 100 fighters and bombers), against the calls by NATO allies for more negotiations and sanctions. Some NATO members even denied the US Air Force overfly rights.

Going it alone, Reagan launched a surprise attack on Libyan military targets and command centers – Operation El Dorado Canyon – aimed at taking out Qaddafi and his military leadership. The dictator survived, but he never recovered from the attack that humiliated him and destroyed his air defenses. For some time he found solace in R&D of WMD. Yet even this last hope sputtered in 2001 with receipt of an ultimatum from President George W. Bush. In December 2003, fearful of following in the footsteps of the freshly deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi gave up his WMD program.

Thereafter, as a secular leader, Qaddafi began to work with the US against Libya’s al-Qaeda Islamists. However, these moves did not protect him from a 2011 NATO intervention, orchestrated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Qaddafi’s subsequent murder by U.S.-armed Libyan rebels, and Saddam’s earlier execution, stiffened Pyongyang’s belief that it must never give up its WMD – the guarantee of the regime’s survival.

Defense Secretary James Mattis has recently hinted at a viable US military North Korea option that “would not leave Seoul at risk of devastating retaliatory strikes.” Undoubtedly, Pyongyang will be a riskier and much more demanding operation than Reagan’s El Dorado. Yet Kim Jong-Un is not suicidal. If his own life and the lives of his family, as well as his comfortable retirement, can be guaranteed, might not he give up his WMD in the face of an imminent massive strike?

Kim must not be allowed to perfect his delivery systems, threaten the US and its allies with his missiles, and bolster worldwide terrorism by his brazen example. Dangerous though it is, a Reaganesque decapitation of the totalitarian Pyongyang regime can prevent worse catastrophe later, including subsequent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

The 2018 NDS aptly pointed to Russia’s military interventions in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine, as well as to China’s creating man-made islands as military outposts in the Pacific. All these were serious affronts to existing world order. But how likely are new Putin interventions, say in NATO’s Baltic states? As posited by Czech president Milos Zeman, who knows Putin well, they are most unlikely: “Putin is not suicidal.”

Trump surely knows that Reagan, like him, embarked on a massive military buildup, aimed at deterring Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. And, like Reagan, he aims eventually at a discreet opening to Moscow. To the chagrin of his hardliners, Reagan wrote personal letters to three consecutive, dying Russian leaders. Finally, with healthy Gorbachev, he found the path to genuine partnership. “Some of the N.S.C. Staff are too hard line & don’t think any approach should be made to the Soviets,” Reagan recorded in his diary on April 6, 1983, amidst this process. “I think I’m hardliner & never will appease but I do want to try & let them see there is a better world if they’ll show by deed they want to go along with the free world” (emphasis in the original).

Trump must be aware that economic stagnation wrought by the Western sanctions has made a new nuclear arms race prohibitively costly for Moscow, but also for the US. He also knows that Russia suffers terrorist attacks by Islamists from the Caucasus and Central Asia. Yet the president has an Achilles heel that Reagan did not have: his inability to admit any serious misjudgments. For over a year, he repeatedly dismissed Russia’s interference in the US elections as a hoax.

As the evidence now seems incontrovertible, he could learn from Reagan’s handling of his major scandal – the 1986 Iran-Contragate. Initially, the president denied that the US had illegally supplied arms to rogue state Iran for releasing American hostages. After a period of denials, however, Reagan, unlike Nixon in Watergate, owned up to the truth. With the recent indictment of 13 Russians and a few Russian institutions for election rigging, Trump must find Reagan’s inner strength to stop denying the undeniable.

Taking the long view, however, the administration should realize that neither the US, nor Russia, nor China can likely prevail alone in the global war on Islamic terrorism. To win in Afghanistan and stabilize Syria, Washington must sooner or later explore new opportunities for limited partnership with Moscow and Beijing. Should these powers demonstrate real seriousness of intention – the administration must seize the moment.

The decisive factor in the coming months, however, will be Trump’s success or failure in cutting the North Korean Gordian knot. Only then can he demonstrate if he possesses the “imponderable” quality of political judgment that Ronald Reagan had.

Dr Jiri Valenta is a non-residential Senior Research Associate with BESA. He and his wife, Leni, are the Institute of Post-Communist Studies and Terrorism’s principals, in Miami (jvlv.net) for the last decade. Jiri is coauthor (with Norman Podhoretz and William Maynes) of “Terrorism, Reagan’s Response” (University of Miami, 1986).

                                             Image of Moscow and Washington via Quora.com

                                               June 20, 2017


Published by the BESA [Begin-Sadat] Center for Strategic Studies,

Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Israel

                      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.  

                Washington and Moscow:             Confrontation or Cooperation?

                 Jiri Valenta and Leni Friedman Valenta

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, Jan. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, pool)..

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 (jvlv.net). 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

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