Charles Duelfer | The Search For Truth In Iraq

A Houthi State on Bab al-Mandab?

Can the UN Security Council accept a settlement of the Yemen conflict which does not mandate adherence to Freedom of Navigation?

It appears the Houthi leadership in Sana’a aspires to be to the Bab al-Mandab, as Egypt is to the Suez Canal.  This is to say, in control of the transits and deriving a continuous revenue stream.  It also seems that Iran is quite happy with supporting this outcome.  To the extent Iran controls the Houthis, it will be able to squeeze the twin carotid arteries of shipping at the Strait of Hormuz on the Gulf side and the Bab al-Mandab on the Red Sea. Iran control over maritime access on both sides of the Arabian Peninsula is being demonstrated by the Houthis maritime attacks. 

The US military and its allies have tried to counter the Houthis attacks which have effectively choked commerce through the Red Sea. They have not succeeded, though the US Navy has expended a substantial fortune on munitions.  Vice Admiral Brad Cooper DCINC of CENTCOM stated in a 60-Minutes News interview two days ago that they have expended about 100 Standard Missile 2s to defend against the attacks by anti-ship ballistic missiles.  This is the first time such advanced missiles have been used in combat against the US Navy or commercial shipping.  Of course, these advanced weapons were provided to the Houthis by Iran.  And Iran is learning very valuable lessons from their use in combat.

So far, the SM-2 missiles have been successful.  However, Vice Admiral Cooper, mentioned that they cost about $4 million each.  So, the US military has spent over $400 million just on those munitions.  They have consumed many others, including precision aerial bombs and cruise missiles to attempt to disarm Houthi facilities. 

This is a very expensive engagement where US costs far exceed the costs of the attacker.  I have no idea how depleted our munitions stocks are, but this is another case where we are using munitions that will take years to replace against third tier opponents.

China must be watching and counting, at a minimum.  It was hard to escape noticing that the Iranian Ship “Bershad” was, until yesterday, moored (according to AIS data) in Djibouti waters…perhaps a mile or two, from the PLA facility on the Djibouti shore.  This is the ship that the US acknowledged conducting cyber actions against.  It was reportedly providing targeting information to the Houthis for their maritime missile attacks.  The Chinese have been mysteriously quiet about the threats to international shipping (lots of China’s shipping passes this way.) 

All of this poses a nasty dilemma for the pursuit of Yemen peace negotiations.  The de facto truce on the ground has been prolonged presumably because there is some interest by all parties in a political solution of some sort.  A roadmap of steps forward has been created after much effort.  The Houthis state publicly that the peace dialogue is separate from their attacking ships in waters off Yemen. Those attacks are outside Yemen.  Forgive me for not being relieved about that distinction.

Would it ever be acceptable, to have a government in Yemen that has established its control over the Bab al-Mandab and is in effect, charging fees for passage?   Can the US impose a military solution to this and every other similar conflict?  Do we have enough munitions?

The UN-led negotiations on Yemen have become much more complicated.  The existing framework for those negotiations was already a bit out of date.  The new circumstances require the UN Security Council to agree that freedom of navigation must now be part of any solution.  UN Negotiator Hans Grundberg’s job is now far more complicated.  The UN  Security Council should make clear that adherence to international norms for freedom of navigation must now be part of the solution.  Ambiguity is not useful on this issue.

Posted in Allies, China, Iran, United Nations | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Gaza: Tunnel Warfare or “Subterranean Operations”

“Mr. President, we cannot allow a mineshaft gap!” exclaimed General “Buck” Turgidson, in the 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove”. 

The public was not prepared. The casual observer of news videos showing relentless Israeli bombing in Gaza can readily wonder if it is disproportionate to the military goals.  Tens of thousands of civilians killed because of a bunch of tunnels?  There was little attention focused on the Hamas threat, especially the tunnel threat in the period before Hamas attacked.  In contrast, Prime Minister Netanyahu has spun up the world about the Iran nuclear threat and the potential necessity for Israel to conduct a massive air attack against Iran’s underground nuclear facilities.  But the threat of Hamas and especially its tunnels was not highlighted.  If you asked students of the Middle East last year to list the major military threats to Israel—few if any would have noted tunnels.

Yet, Hamas constructed a huge maze of tunnels throughout the Gaza Strip.  How or why did this happen without drawing broad attention?  Tunnels have been an implement of warfare forever.  They were built offensively to attack castles in the Middle Ages. Defensively they have been used to conceal personnel or weapons, and to transport material clandestinely. East Berliners escaped to the West by tunnelling under the Berlin Wall.  American forces were vexed by tunnels employed by the Viet Cong. And in the Middle East there is recent experience of tunnel warfare in Syria where Al Nusra used them in urban areas.  ISIS used them in the battle for Mosul. 

In military and security studies, there is little focus on Tunnel Warfare, or “Subterranean operations”.  I include myself in overlooking their import—and I spent substantial effort investigating underground facilities in Iraq as potential concealment locations for WMD while directing the Iraq Survey Group in 2004.  The US national security establishment hasn’t focused on a subterranean mission.  Maybe we needed a General Buck Turgidson to draw attention a Tunnel capability gap. 

Proportionality.  The fact that Hamas initiated this war is readily understood.  What’s harder to grasp is why the underground network is so important and requires continuous bombing for months to destroy?  Even more critical is the magnitude of destruction to civilian surface inhabitants to get at the subterranean enemy.  Endless videos of the horrors endured by surface civilians combined with no publicly understandable image of the underground threat leaves Israel struggling to justify their military response.   The vague objective of “destroying Hamas” is not compelling when there are vivid videos of above ground despair and little to no imagery of the subterranean threat.

The rationales do not resonate with average audiences.  Older Americans will recall the hollow rationale during the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam war, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”   Huh?

Again, the public was not prepared in advance for the magnitude of the war that surprised Israel and the world on October 7, 2023.  This is one key consequence of the policy and intelligence failures prior to October 7.

Simple questions present themselves.  How can you dig 500 km of tunnels without anyone knowing?   Where did they put all the dirt?  Nothing showed up in overhead imagery?  Hundreds of workers were involved in digging, pouring concrete, running conduits, air ventilation systems, creating entrance and egress points. Israel must have received reports on such activity. And, if they did know, didn’t they appreciate the threat?   

Few have focused on subterranean warfare in the United States, but in Gaza, it’s on a par with other established military domains: Air, Land, Sea, Cyber, and Space.  Didn’t Israel?

Well, they must have “turned a blind eye” to it as the saying goes because there was a dress rehearsal of this attack in July-August 2014.  Americans who do not follow the middle east closely would probably not recall this prior Hamas-Israel conflict—especially since it occurred in the middle of the horrific ISIS war which dominated headlines.

The Dress Rehearsal.  In July 2014, Hamas used tunnels from Gaza to attack Israel. In many ways, this was a test run of the techniques witnessed in the current conflict.  Hamas virtually repeated all the same tactics on October 7, but amped up the scale and the horror.  Israel’s limited objective in the 2014 conflict was to destroy the tunnels that crossed the Israeli border.  Maybe world attention was focused on the ISIS war in Syrian and Iraq, but the 2014 Israel-Hamas conflict should not have been taken lightly. 

There is a fascinating analysis of Hamas’ 2014 tunnel networks detailed by Dr. Eado Hecht (an Israeli defense analyst specializing in military theory and military history) in a 45-page report he presented to the UN Commission of Inquiry on the 2014 Gaza Conflict titled, “The Tunnels in Gaza” in February 2015 (https://www.mideastdig.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/testimony.pdf).

Dr. Hecht identified all the military challenges presented by Hamas’s tunnel network.  He even described many of the locations and their collocations with civilian infrastructure (including under the Shiva Hospital).  Nothing that happened on October 7, 2023 would have surprised anyone who read Dr. Hecht’s report.  For example, he said the following concerning the Hamas actions in 2014:

“In May 2014 the Israel Security Agency published an alert that the Hamas was preparing to conduct a massive terrorist attack probably sometime in the summer or autumn of 2014. Hamas fighters captured and interrogated during the Israeli ground forces operation in Gaza in late July – early August 2014 revealed that the final plan was to simultaneously attack a number of Israeli villages, each one with 10 to 15 terrorists. Had this plan been successfully realized it would have resulted in hundreds of Israel civilian casualties.” 

Dr. Hecht was correct. 

(Note: At end of this piece I have copied some segments of the Hecht report that illuminate the tunnel dangers and challenges.  It’s sadly fascinating reading.) 

Maybe it’s just too hard. Israel also had experience with tunnel threats in the 2006 war with Hezbollah.  If anyone has expertise in the offensive threat of tunnels, it’s Israel.  And yet, it seems to have eluded sufficient attention.  There is not a great body of doctrine or academic literature on subterranean warfare—even in Israel.  There are no large organizations or procurement programs in the (US) military for the conduct of offensive or defensive subterranean warfare.  It has been viewed as an adjunct to other combat missions, not a unique specialty. Partly, I suspect, this is because it is very difficult.  

Israel knew about the existence of tunnels but did not, or could not, develop good technological or doctrinal methods for operating in a battlefield prepared by Hamas years in advance.  Hamas was probably as savvy at subterranean operations as anyone.  They doubled down after their 2014 war.  Israel has been addressing tunnels as a security issue in various components, e.g. border security, smuggling, weapons caching, command and control functions, etc. 

However, in the current conflict is the battle is being taken to Hamas inside Gaza, not responding to border transgressions.  It does not appear, to an outsider, that Israel had a strategy or technical capacity to operate in a battlefield prepared by the enemy in advance for subterranean operations.  What else can explain the lack of any better concept for conducting subterranean warfare in an urban environment than brute force bombing of the tunnels and any co-located civilian structures?  Moreover, that bombing seems to reveal very little detailed knowledge of underground facilities. Precision guided munitions can reduce collateral damage only if you have precision knowledge of target location.  Clearly, the IDF does not.

Some belated attention, has been drawn to subterranean warfare in light of October 7.

USA Today ran a very good summary of the Israeli Tunnel problem on 30 October 2023 by Rick Jervis—early in the massive Israeli bombing campaign (https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2023/10/30/hamas-tunnels-israel-ground-invasion/71373315007/).  He quoted American military officers who had been aware of tunnels as a military problem and the paucity of good solutions.

There are at least three prescient academic articles foreshadowing the military challenges of operating in and holding territory in a conflict on ground prepared by an enemy expert in tunnel warfare.  

IDF Colonel (Res.) Ati Shelah published an article dated 15 July 2014 titled “Maneuvering in the Underground”, in “Israel Defense”.  (https://www.israeldefense.co.il/content/תמרון-בתת-הקרקע) This later is in Hebrew but a google translation yields a pretty comprehensible English translation.

Raphael Marcus of the Insurgency Research Group, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, UK authored a piece dated 12 April 2017 (after the 2014 conflict) titled, “Learning ‘Under Fire’: Israel’s improvised military adaptation to Hamas tunnel warfare”. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01402390.2017.1307744?src=recsys)

Daphne Richemond-Barak and Stefan Voiculescu-Holvad published, “The Rise of Tunnel Warfare as a Tactical, Operational, and Strategic Issue”, in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism published 23 August 2023. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1057610X.2023.2244191)

But is the action proportionate?

Part of the crisis facing the US from the Israeli war with Hamas comes from the apparent disproportionate military collateral civilian casualties.  On the surface, the costly damage is apparent and broadcast real-time around the world.  Below the surface, the importance of the target is obscure, indeed, invisible to global audiences.   On the surface there are thousands of horror stories endured by civilians born in the wrong place.  In contrast to the broadly socialized Iran nuclear threat, the Hamas tunnel threat is not obvious.  The argument about denying a sanctuary to an enemy dedicated to your destruction was not made in advance.  

Syrian tactics.  Syrian confronted the problem of urban enemy tunnels with chlorine gas.  International condemnation of this was swift.  It was, of course, a blatant violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Yet, in a very perverse way, chlorine—which is heavier than air and sinks–or noxious gases could be used to flush enemy out of urban tunnels with much less collateral damage. I am in no way advocating this.  But, perhaps Hamas considered this as one of their reasons for taking hostages.  One wonders if Israel ever considered this as a way of reducing civilian casualties.  

Subterranean conflict is a massive challenge.  To understand and judge the proportionality of Israel’s campaign in Gaza it’s important to have some knowledge of this subject. Just watching television videos is insufficient.  The above (and below) is intended to offer an introduction. There may be no good answers.

Note:  I have copied below some selected excerpts from the 2015 Eado Hecht Report(https://www.mideastdig.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/testimony.pdf). They provide some details on the IDF challenges in conflict involving subterranean structures from eight years ago.

“33. The typical cross-border tunnel was dug at a depth of 15 to 25 meters underground. It was approximately 1.5 meters wide and nearly 2 meters high – a few were wider to enable moving heavier equipment through them (as noted above, in one tunnel the Israeli forces found motor-cycles the Hamas intended to use on exiting the tunnel inside Israel). The sides and roof were lined with concrete. It had electricity for lighting and other uses and telephone wires. In some there were rooms for storing equipment or allowing personnel to stay under ground for extended periods. Some tunnels had more than one branch. In addition to the entrance (usually approximately a meter or slightly more across) there were ventilation shafts dug every few hundred meters.” 

“Detecting the tunnels is a very very difficult task. 

36. To date there is no trustworthy detection technology for tunnels of this size at this depth. All attempts to use radars etc. have proven insufficiently reliable or total failures. The only partially reliable technology that does exist is the use of sensitive microphones inserted into the ground to listen for sounds of digging. However, to hear the digging the microphones have to be fairly close to the location of the tunnel so you have to know in advance where to put them and this requires other sources of intelligence. Also, the sound of digging can be muffled by working slowly with specifically designed manual tools and other sounds in the vicinity can interfere too. Furthermore, once the tunnel is complete the microphones have nothing to hear. 

37. Given the lack of technology the only way of detecting the tunnels is to acquire intelligence from other sources – either listening in to Hamas communications in case they talk about the locations; or stealing documents on the plans of the tunnels from Hamas headquarters; or infiltrating a spy into the digging operations. Hamas is fully aware of these intelligence capabilities and took especial care to maintain the secrecy of the tunnel projects. For example: discussions on the project were not allowed on telephone communications, the diggers were taken to the sites in completely closed vehicles so they could not see where they were and kept underground for a few days at a stretch, building materials taken to the sites and earth removed from the sites were camouflaged, the entrances were all inside buildings and ventilation shafts were camouflaged, etc.” 

Tunnels inside Gaza

43. The tunnels dug inside Gaza are the most varied in use (and therefore also in location, shape and style of building). The different uses are: 

  1. Underground mortar and rocket-launcher positions. 
  2. Command centers 
  3. Safe-havens for Hamas forces to avoid Israeli fire and to rest. 
  4. Hidden fighting positions from which small-arms fire can be directed onto Israeli troops in their vicinity. 
  5. Storage tunnels for weapons and equipment. 
  6. Tactical maneuver tunnels for moving troops or equipment between different locations inside Gaza while hidden from Israeli observation. 
  7. The last type of tunnels is useful also to conduct surprise attacks on Israeli troops from unexpected directions and especially to attempt to kidnap Israeli soldiers.”

“44. There is absolutely no information available from which one can deduce how many tunnels all together there are in Gaza – but there were at least several hundred such tunnels of all the above categories and probably more than a thousand – most of them belonging to the last three categories!Of the approximately 5,000 targets attacked by the Israeli air force, approximately 200 were reported to be storage tunnels. Again it must be reiterated – most of Hamas’ combat power is located above ground, hidden in buildings in residential areas, often in multi-storey apartment buildings in which a few apartments, scattered randomly on all floors, are set aside for Hamas use (command posts, weapons stores, etc.)” 

46. The locations of the tunnels in general and of the entrance and exit points of tunnels in particular, of the non-cross-border tunnels inside Gaza are much more varied than those of the cross-border tunnels: 

  1. Some are located underneath open fields with the entrances and exits camouflaged under huts supposedly built by farmers for resting or storing their tools. 
  2. Others are located underneath the residential areas. Most of the entrances and exits are from the ground floors or basements of residential homes or of public buildings – including Mosques (for example the above-mentioned Khuza’a Mosque), hospitals (The chief headquarters of the Hamas is believed to be under the Al-Shifa hospital[1]), medical clinics, schools and other public service buildings. Some entrances, exits and ventilation holes are located outside buildings and camouflaged to appear to be ‘innocent’ civilian locations, covered by vegetation etc. or even disguised to resemble merey pot- holes in the street. 

47. It should be noted that many tunnels had multiple entrances so that even if the Israelis found and destroyed one entrance the Hamas could often still use that tunnel or even redig the destroyed entrance. 

48. Here too it should be noted that most of the entrances were surrounded by explosive devices – some to be triggered by booby-traps and some to be triggered by Hamas observers watching from adjacent buildings. Also, Hamas placed great emphasis on camouflaging the openings of the tunnels. Therefore, finding a tunnel entrance was a slow dangerous process to avoid enemy fire, avoid booby-traps and recognize the camouflage. An Israeli unit could be inside a building on the same floor as the tunnel entrance, searching for it and still be surprised by a Hamas team ‘popping out’ of the floor or wall. An Israeli unit could be in the street and suddenly be attacked from behind by a Hamas team ‘popping up’ out of the ground or shooting at it from a building the Israelis had previously searched and thought they had cleared. In one incident in Shujayia, the entrance to a tunnel was discovered only 6 days after it had been used to attack an Israeli unit and therefore the building it was in had been searched a number of times.” 

“61.   Over the years the Israelis turned a blind eye to the activities in these tunnels except when they had explicit information on the transfer of a weapons shipment through a specific tunnel. During the war in the summer the Israelis completely ignored these tunnels. Egypt on the other hand, angered by Hamas’ assistance to the Salafist Jihadi terrorists attacking Egyptian civilians and soldiers, began searching for and shutting down the exits to the tunnels on its side of the border. Over the past year and a half, with complete and free access (this is Egyptian territory) the Egyptian forces located and destroyed more than 1,800 tunnels. This was done by house to house searches in the Egyptian town of Raffa where all the tunnels have active entrances – many of them very large and impossible to hide once the right building is entered. The search was conducted without need for combat as the house owners are mostly Egyptian civilians working for profit and have no motivation to fight. Some months ago the Egyptian authorities decided that the only solution is to evict the population and raze all the houses within 500 meters of the border with Gaza and then dig a deep ditch and fill it with sea-water. There have been more recent reports that before digging the ditch they intend to widen the depopulated zone to about 1,000 meters.” 

How does the IDF destroy the tunnels?

69. The manner of destruction depends on the type of tunnel and the result required. I will begin with the easy part – the non-cross border tunnels. 

Non-Cross-Border Tunnels 

70. As I described above, ground fighting inside Gaza resembled a deadly version of the game of ‘hide and go seek’ – Hamas fighters hid in the buildings and set off bombs hidden inside adjacent buildings or in the streets (thousands of bombs of various sizes and shapes were emplaced in residential and public buildings including Mosques and medical clinics – some were placed only when the fighting began, others were embedded permanently in the walls or floors of buildings) when Israeli troops passed near them as well as firing small-arms, RPG rockets and mortar bombs towards the Israeli troops. 

71. As noted before – non-cross-border tunnels interested the Israeli ground forces only insofar as they were being used to attack them while they searched for the cross-border tunnels. Tunnels that were considered non- cross-border merely had their entrances blown in with explosives to prevent them being used to infiltrate Hamas attack-teams behind the advancing Israelis. This sometimes proved insufficient because of the way the tunnels were built, so that the damage caused was superficial and Hamas fighters reopened them. 

72. During the summer 2014 war the Israeli air force attacked a long list of targets that included many tunnels inside Gaza. It was not used to attack cross-border tunnels. Air attacks are usually not effective in destroying entire tunnels – the depth of the tunnels means that only special bombs will reach them and their small size means that to hit them requires extremely accurate intelligence as to their exact location (this is not a finding unique to Gaza – the Americans were confounded by it in Vietnam). Therefore, unable to know the exact trace of the tunnel underground, the Israeli air force attacks tunnels by dropping bombs on the entrances. However, the damage caused is only partial and temporary – collapsing only that entrance and perhaps a very short section of tunnel next to it. The exact extent of the damage depends on the depth of the tunnel – the deeper it is, the longer the entrance-shaft and the less the damage to the tunnel beneath. Other entrances would rarely be damaged and the damaged entrance can be replaced by digging a new one within a couple of weeks. Therefore, aircraft are usually used only to attack tunnels that ground forces cannot reach, or when a partial and temporary destruction of a tunnel is deemed sufficient. Exceptional cases are tunnels used to store explosive or flammable materials. In a number of cases in Gaza, bombs dropped by the Israeli air force on the entrances of storage-tunnels filled with explosive and flammable materials set-off a chain-reaction of sympathetic explosions that destroyed the entire tunnel and its contents.” 

“74. During the summer 2014 war, the required result was total and permanent destruction of the cross-border tunnels. To do this the Israeli soldiers had to: 

  1. Fight their way to the suspected locations of tunnel entrances, search those locations to find the tunnel entrance. 
  2. Then they had to fight off Hamas counter-attacks while clearing the explosive booby-traps around and in the tunnel entrances or dig a new parallel entrance to avoid the booby-traps altogether. 
  3. Then they searched each tunnel to map it in order to find all the branches and entrances – again having to deal in some cases with booby-traps and sometimes ‘bumping’ into Hamas fighters waiting inside the tunnels – in order to figure out where it was going. In some cases what initially looked like a cross-border tunnel turned out to be only a tactical tunnel inside Gaza.
  4. After clearing and mapping each tunnel, Israeli soldiers had to manually carry several tons of explosives into it with a minimum of mechanical help like a winch for inserting it down the typically 20 to 25 meter long entrance shaft. The exact tonnage depended on the length of the tunnel, but averaged 9 to 11 tons per tunnel. 
  5. Then the explosives were scattered along the entire length of all the branches of the tunnel and connected to a common detonator. The amount of explosives used was computed to be the minimum necessary to ensure destruction of the tunnel with minimal damage above ground. Since the tunnels were reinforced with concrete too small a charge would have not caused sufficient damage to destroy the tunnel. 
  6. Other Israeli soldiers were sent above ground to ensure that the area above the tunnel route was clear of people. 
  7. After this the explosives were fired. 

75. It should be emphasized that throughout this laborious and therefore long process (usually a few days per tunnel) the entire area around the tunnel entrance and between the tunnel entrance and Israeli territory had to be kept clear of Hamas fighters trying to attack the Israeli tunnel units either above ground or via tactical maneuver tunnels, sniping from a distance and bombarding them with mortars. 

Dr. Eado Hecht

(Ph.D. Hebrew University) Defense analyst specializing in military theory and military history. Lectures at Bar-Ilan University, Haifa University and at the IDF Command and General Staff College. Serves on the Editorial Advisory Panel of The Journal of Military Operations. Email: eadohecht@walla.com


[1]Indications for this are the inordinate number of armed guards and closed areas in the lower areas of the hospital and guarded remarks by locals to foreign journalists. 

Posted in Chemical Weapons, Gaza, Gaza,Hamas, Israel, ISIS, Israel, Syria CW | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

US Leadership:

Informal conversations with foreign friends and allies usually turn to the question of the coming 2024 election. Our friends and allies have a stake in the direction and constancy of the United States. I deeply value allies and would like to assure them that America will remain a stalwart partner with shared values and interests. However, I also value candor and looking at the prospects for the next election can result in a dubious shrug…at best. But there is one pathway ahead.

I recall a period of turmoil in America when things were also divided…arguably worse than today. In 1968 there were: assassinations (Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy); race riots in cities; college campuses were in turmoil; the violent Chicago Democratic National Convention; 550,000 US troops in Viet Nam, the Tet Offensive, Khe Sanh, My Lai massacre; the Cold War with the Soviet Union was going full blast and nuclear war was not a remote contingency (a B-52 bomber with 4 nuclear weapons crashed in Greenland among other accidents). And it was a presidential election year.

On March 31, after the early primary in New Hampshire, President Lyndon Baines Johnson surprised Americans by announcing at the end of a speech largely about the Viet Nam war that “Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” (the segment leading up to this line is worth reviewing as it parallels the current social landscape in America…see below.)

It strikes me that President Biden is also a man who could make a similar decision for similar reasons. One complexity would be the selection of successor candidate. Johnson left it to Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon won. Trump is no Nixon. And Harris is no Humphrey. Still, this is a possible scenario that is not fantasy and provides some cause for an outcome that is less disruptive to those who link their fates to America–including its citizens.

Note: From Johnson speech of 31 March 1968

“There is division in the American house now. There is divisiveness among us all tonight. And holding the trust that is mine, as President of all the people, I cannot disregard the peril to the progress of the American people and the hope and the prospect of peace for all peoples.

So, I would ask all Americans, whatever their personal interests or concern, to guard against divisiveness and all its ugly consequences.

Fifty-two months and 10 days ago, in a moment of tragedy and trauma, the duties of this office fell upon me. I asked then for your help and God’s, that we might continue America on its course, binding up our wounds, healing our history, moving forward in new unity, to clear the American agenda and to keep the American commitment for all of our people.

United we have kept that commitment. United we have enlarged that commitment.

Through all time to come, I think America will be a stronger nation, a more just society, and a land of greater opportunity and fulfillment because of what we have all done together in these years of unparalleled achievement.

Our reward will come in the life of freedom, peace, and hope that our children will enjoy through ages ahead.

What we won when all of our people united just must not now be lost in suspicion, distrust, selfishness, and politics among any of our people.

Believing this as I do, I have concluded that I should not permit the Presidency to become involved in the partisan divisions that are developing in this political year.

With America’s sons in the fields far away, with America’s future under challenge right here at home, with our hopes and the world’s hopes for peace in the balance every day, I do not believe that I should devote an hour or a day of my time to any personal partisan causes or to any duties other than the awesome duties of this office–the Presidency of your country.

Accordingly, I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”

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Things to Consider: Iraq War at 20

Everyone (and their dog) is writing/commenting about the Iraq war 20 years later.  I doubt more accuracy is achieved in these tales after 20 years.  Everyone seems to think they were central to events.  Some of them were.[1]   

My perspective was also partial, but also unique in important ways–see endnote.[i]  I won’t repeat my previous observations, but simply make a ten points for those considering the spate of new stories and revelations being promoted.

  • Don’t ignore the context of events at the time, and the mindsets that existed from the preceding experiences at key decision points.

President Bush was still very new to the office when 9-11 happened.  He had been inaugurated just eight months earlier.  The Administration was not even fully in place and the United States homeland was attacked.  Fighter aircraft were on constant patrol over Washington because there was expectation of a follow-on attack by Al Qaeda (and recall on 10 September few Americans had heard of Al-Qaeda—but they had heard of Saddam Hussein).  

  • Who should a president believe?   

The intelligence community?  Maybe, but they certainly have gotten things wrong in the past.  The national security team?  What do they know really?  And they disagree in fundamental ways.  Do you listen to other world leaders?  They have their own spin and may be completely wrong.  Iraqi oppositionists?  They may sound knowledgeable, but they haven’t been in Iraq in decades.  The UN weapons inspectors (UNSCOM)? They were in Iraq for many years, but couldn’t verify that Saddam disarmed…or not.  Their work left severe doubts especially given Saddam’s lengthy track record of deceit.  Saddam himself gave contradictory statements.  He professed compliance at times, but also blustered that he had more capabilities.[2]  Bush and Saddam shared the same problem that all leaders have—Who do you believe?   

  •  Intelligence was extremely limited after 1998.

Once the UN inspection team departed Iraq in December 1998, the US was left virtually blind.  While inspectors would not confirm the disposition of Iraq’s full WMD programs, they nevertheless provided a continuous presence that limited uncertainty.  The intelligence community still had to make assessments…but based on less data and growing uncertainty. Moreover, the stories of dubious defectors could not be checked by having inspectors on the ground.  Fabricators got a much better hearing than they deserved.

  • Erring on the side of caution.

When the stakes are high, intelligence organizations tend to be conservative.  After 9-11, the security threat was not hypothetical.  The notional threats that had been discussed since the demise of the Soviet Union tended to be regional and distant from the US.  But 9-11 brought death and destruction to Americans at home. There was no tolerance for that risk.  

  • “I told you so…”

Bear in mind when you hear the next, “I told you so”, even if the actor really did, so what?  Why should a top-level decision maker believe them or me?  There are always plenty of “experts” who warn of pending threats.  If a flying saucer landed on the south lawn of the White House this afternoon, I am confident someone in the bloated intelligence community (17 separate agencies spending roughly $80-100 billion/year) will have written some piece of paper predicting such an event.  And just as certainly, the day after, Congress will demand hearings to investigate why the Administration did not listen to the poor ignored officer who could see what the rest of us did not.  BTW, Wall Street suffers the same problem.  I am sure someone will have predicted the Silicon Valley Bank crunch.  Why did we not listen?

  • Saddam wondered if US intelligence was possibly correct.

Saddam and those around him, had occasional doubts about whether WMD was retained in Iraq.  At one point, reacting to the strength of US WMD accusations, he asked his top advisors (at a Revolutionary Command Council meeting) whether there was something they weren’t telling him about Iraq WMD?  

  • TV Experts

Experts in think tanks, universities, etc., all derive stature by being in the media.  Just look at their resumes.  They list the various media outlets on which they have appeared. (I have been guilty of this.) If they are on some television or other media, does that imply credibility?  Or do they just generate clicks?  Being controversial and of deep conviction is better for media, than nuance.   Being good on TV is a separate talent from Iraq expertise.  Cable networks particularly tend to sustain their preferred narrative. When Iraq (or anything else) is hot, their bookers need to fill time and their talking heads may know no more than what they read in their morning internet feed.   

  • Iraq was a hard target.

Access to Iraq was very limited. It was like North Korea is today.  Remember, Iraq did not have internet (except for a few senior officials). The data that came out of Iraq was limited and therefore the bits that did emerge often received out of proportion attention. The outsized role of bogus defectors like the one dubbed “Curveball” illustrates the problem.  Judgements were made on very little real new data. [3]

  • Iraq did have WMD–and used it.

What was incontrovertible was that Saddam did have WMD in the past.   Saddam countered Iranian “human wave attacks” with chemical weapons—sarin and mustard agents.  He used 101,000 chemical munitions in the war with Iran.  Arguably WMD saved his regime.  Later, in the 1991 Iraq war, Saddam was of the view that one reason the US military did not go to Baghdad after expelling Iraq from Kuwait was the deterrent value of his WMD.  Why wouldn’t he retain the stuff?  He’d be crazy not to…or so one might think. While UNSCOM dogmatically uncovered virtually all his WMD between 1991 and 1998, we did not know how successful we were.  There were serious unanswered, unverifiable elements.

  •  Diminishing flexibility as military prepares. 

The political decision to prepare a military option to bolster a diplomatic solution is seductive. However, military preparations acquire their own momentum and before too long become virtually unstoppable.  Once the military is instructed to begin to put in place a capability to achieve regime change by force huge things start to move.  Tanks, munitions, repair and maintenance facilities, fuel, aircraft support and spares parts, hospitals, search and rescue capabilities etc., take months to deploy forward.  It is a massive undertaking and once in place, cannot be held in abeyance or the capability begins to decay.  The notion of putting all that military capacity in place and then wait “to give diplomacy a chance” is unfortunately impossible.  “Use it or lose it” takes over.  What may begin as an option to increase diplomatic leverage for a peaceful solution gradually becomes a factor that makes a peaceful outcome almost impossible.  Somewhere in the Iraq build-up there was a “point of no return”.  Unless, or course, if Saddam left.  That was his choice. 

So, before quickly concluding that you know Iraq was a huge avoidable mistake, take a moment to consider the circumstances at the time and whether a different decision would have been possible.  It is also worth considering whether regime change could have been done differently.  But that’s a separate series of questions.  Suffice to say here, the US government is not good at brain surgery.  My view has been:  If a president wants something done, he/she better want it done very very badly because it may be done very very badly.       


[1] I put my own perspectives in a book (no dog was involved) in 2010 (Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq).  I was also responsible for the Iraq Survey Group’s comprehensive report on Iraq WMD (so-called Duelfer Report) issued a month before the November 2004 presidential elections.  That report has stood the test of time. 

[2] Later in detention Saddam said these comments were aimed at Iran. He assumed the US, with its great (expensive anyway) intelligence system, must really know the truth. 

[3] The fact that the intelligence assessments relied on such limited information and was such low confidence should have been emphasized.  This was one of the terrible faults in the October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). It’s now on-line and worth reading to see how you would react to that intelligence judgment.


[i] My involvement with Iraq began in 1982 and continued to 2005. I never considered myself an expert on Iraq—I don’t speak Arabic.  However, I was a State Department political-military officer during the 1980’s involved in US relations in that sphere during the Iran-Iraq war.  From 1993-2000, I was the Deputy Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN weapons inspection organization established after the 1991 Iraq war to eliminate Iraq’s WMD and establish a monitoring system sufficient to ensure programs were not restarted—even after sanctions were lifted.  Because the US had no embassy in Baghdad during the 1990’s and Iraq was a hostile environment to Americans, I was one of the few Americans in regular contact with senior Iraqis for most the 1990’s. 

I stayed in touch with Iraq and Iraqis up to and during the invasion of 2003.  I saw Iraqis I had known for years—sometimes at their homes, sometimes in detention.  It was not pleasant.  Saddam was removed, but…did it really need to be that bad afterwards?  

Many of the criticisms of the invasion and especially the post invasion decisions are well-founded.  However, some of the “I told you so” stories are very dubious in my recollection.  

I had the opportunity to provide my version of “lessons-learned” from Iraq for over 7000 new intelligence officers (mostly analysts) in the years since.  It’s something I have spent many years considering and discussing with various participants—including Iraqis who by the accident of birth were in Saddam’s Iraq.

Posted in Allies, Chemical Weapons, Intelligence, Iran, Iraq, Sunni, Syria CW, United Nations, WMD | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Death of Choice – Aymen al-Zawahiri

The US “took the shot” on 31 July that killed Aymen al-Zawahiri, the identified leader of Al-Qaeda.  Zawahiri had been hunted by the US since the 9-11.  It took a decade to find and kill Osama bin Laden.  It took another decade to find and kill Zawahiri.  There was general celebration of this achievement in Washington. 

There’s a good chance this was a good thing to do. It would have been difficult for a president not to follow-through on killing Zawahiri.  Imagine the leaks to the press about the president who had the second person responsible for 9-11 in his drone sites and did not pull the trigger.

Still it is interesting to consider the alternative. It is fundamental to ignore sunk costs in cost-benefit analysis. The objective is to evaluate expected future returns/risks of a potential action. It’s the future that we can affect. 

Presumably someone in the Administration considered the benefits of leaving Zawahiri alive.  Here are a few possible benefits:

  1. Zawahiri was the aging (71) head of a greatly weakened organization.  He had the stature of being the second to al Qaeda founder Usama bin Laden but lacked the organizational skills and charisma of UBL.  In the decade since UBL was killed, he has not been successful in rebuilding Al Qaeda.  Offshoots in Mali, Somalia, and Yemen are more localized, with local leaders and local objectives.  Under Zawahiri the threat to the US homeland has been constrained. 
  2. Removing Zawahiri opens the leadership position to someone who may be more energetic and wanting to make a name by hitting the US directly.  With the US being pressed from many sides, it’s somewhat surprising we have not been hit again. In any case, Zawahiri was a devil we knew and his track record for the last decade is limited.
  3. A new leader will lack the inherited respect accorded to Zawahiri.  A younger leader may seek to demonstrate leadership by re-igniting the war against the far enemy (US) in an effort to rebuild al Qaeda internationally.
  4. The fact that the US killed the titular head of Al-Qaeda makes his death a rallying point for invigorated anti-US activity, beyond the localized threats in Africa and the Gulf.
  5. The US may have solved a key management problem for Al-Qaeda.  It may be that the organization was suffering under old, weak leadership that could not be challenged directly.  The death of Zawahiri could make way for a new more dangerous Al-Qaeda.

This last point could produce some creative theories about how the US located Zawahiri.  Perhaps the stymied young and hungry found salvation by letting the US solve their impatience with aged leadership.  Letting slip location information is certainly possible.  It’s pure speculation, but not useless. 

In any case, it is a certainty that US analysis of the threat posed by Al-Qaeda post-Zawahiri will be written…carefully.  Analysts in the intelligence community would find it awkward to assess that Al Qaeda could now become a greater threat to the US homeland.

An alternative that might have been considered (I have no clue) to create a third option for the president would be to simply release the image of Zawahiri in the crosshairs.  This would communicate a different message, but almost as powerful, i.e. Zawahiri was alive only because the US let him live.  This would weaken him further, block ascension of a more energetic dangerous leader, and, still put the Afghanis on the spot for harboring Al Qaeda leadership.

But that option may also have been impossible in Washington.  In political science it is impossible to ignore sunk costs.  The events of 9-11 are not just “sunk costs”.  It was an attack on the US that the US vowed to avenge—even if it took two decades to find Zawahiri. There are domestic political considerations not least is the debt to those most affected by 9-11.

Moreover, there may have been many other sensitive information of dynamics that made taking the shot inevitable. 

Still it is worth considering the alternatives.  In retrospect, there seems to be mixed views on the wisdom of killing Iranian Quds force leader Major General Qasem Soleimani.  For all Soleimani’s actions against the US, he was also someone with whom there was tacit coordination in fighting the common enemy of ISIS in Iraq (see Michael Gordon’s exquisite new book on the ISIS war, “Degrade and Destroy”.)

Perhaps most important, I hope the president’s staff did their best to preserve his options and not box him in. 

Posted in Intelligence, Iran, Iraq, ISIL, ISIS | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Nuclear Weapons and Alcohol Do Not Mix

Lot’s of analysts are creating analyses of Vladimir Putin.  What drives him? What are his objectives? Is he psycho?  The fact is, no one really knows.  Analysis that was likewise wobbly surrounded Saddam in his day. It was off the mark and a bad basis for making policy decisions.  Unfortunately, the error band on anticipating a particular leader’s intentions or action is very large.  It’s hard to predict behavior of a single person.  

What’s worse is when the consequences of a single decision-maker are huge. 

Consider this.  Martin Indyk  has written a fascinating and very detailed examination of Henry Kissinger’s diplomatic history, called “Master of the Game.”  Indyk was a participant in much of what he describes.  And he meticulously sources his content.

In a chapter called DEFCOM-3, he describes the interactions of the various actors during the October 1973 (Yom Kippur) War.  Anwar Sadat’s Egyptian army surprised Israel and the Israeli army was not holding its own.  The superpowers were involved on opposite sides (well Kissinger was playing both Egypt and Israel sides in way).  At a certain delicate point the US raised its nuclear alert level to so-called DEFCON-3[1] to signal the Soviets Washington was committed to not letting Israel lose.  Indyk describes the machinations in Washington in arriving at that decision.  It took place at a bad time for Nixon.  Watergate was blowing up.  The famous “Saturday night massacre” when Nixon fired Special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus took place four days earlier.  It has been well documented that Nixon was in his cups at the time and not part of the decision.

OK, that’s weird and scary that un-elected officials are making nuclear control decisions because the boss is looped.  But Indyk doesn’t stop there.  He’s unearthed documents and interviews from the Soviet side.  It turns out Leonid Brezhnev was also out of the loop!  He mixed “copious quantities” of vodka with sleeping pills that left him unable to think straight.  Consequently his staff was making decisions on his behalf. Not good.

Well, you might take some reassurance that at least the staffers were solid or sober.  But Indyk’s research shows that both sides were acting on incorrect assessments of the other side.

The nuclear balance needs attention.  A lot can go wrong.  The systems including the warning and control elements are old and I suspect of dubious reliability.  The leaders likewise. The systems, physical and procedural need attention.


[1] Defense Condition (DEFCON) levels go from 5 (lowest alert level) to 1 signifying nuclear war is imminent.  DEFCON -3 highest is “peacetime” level and forces need to be ready to mobilize on a very short timeline.  There are large consequences to military posture at each DEFCON level.  Personnel leaves are curtailed, airplane and ship patrols, submarines leave port, are changed, weapons bunkers are adjusted, communications change, satellites change, etc.  It also has implications for NATO and forces deployed overseas. In short, the nuclear structure is a big machine with a lot of moving parts that can signal unintended things.  Going to a higher DEFCON is not to be taken lightly.

Posted in Allies, Intelligence, Lavrov, nuclear weapons, Putin, Ukraine, WMD | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Putin: Lessons from Saddam

Is Lavrov the New Baghdad Bob? Saddam’s

Saddam’s last information minister and a former foreign minister was Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf–better known in Western Press as “Baghdad Bob”. He was ridiculed for his blatant incorrect statements about the American led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Putin’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is making statements that have a similar truth quotient. Why? Maybe survival.

One of the good things that came out of the most Iraq war was the detailed recording of the decision processes of the Saddam regime.  We obtained incredible detail on how Saddam made decisions and why.  There are striking similarities between Putin’s regime and Saddam’s. 

This was plainly visible in Putin’s televised Security Council meeting with his advisors.  The image of Putin receiving a series of obsequious bobble heads was a mirror image of Saddam surrounded by his lieutenants at his Revolutionary Command Council.  They were there to reinforce the position of the leader and share the blame and guilt.   

Of course, the big difference is Saddam didn’t have WMD but Putin does.  So this is far worse, but we’ll come back to that.  

Saddam, in his post war debriefings spoke to many of the same problems that we now see in Putin’s regime.  Saddam correctly observed that his access to honest information and judgments was skewed by the fears of the people around him.  They did not want to present bad news.  He belatedly understood the system did not serve him.  Of course, he didn’t quite blame himself for the system.  

Likewise, the coterie around Putin constitutes the same problem. They too, are snared by Putin’s mixture of rewards and fears, and behave accordingly.  No one stood up and said, “Hey boss, this sounds a little wobbly to me…uhhh.”    Saddam’s leadership deliberations prior to invading Kuwait suffered from the distortions of a leader accustomed to few if any constraints and servants with no rights other than those given by the dictator.  Hence, discussions over invading Kuwait had a decidedly muted aura with respect to highlighting the downsides.  The script of Putin’s regarding Ukraine was, if anything, even more limited.   Those who surrounded Saddam accrued wealth and power, but were subject to the fear of sudden demise.  The only difference between Saddam’s inner circle and Putin’s was the inclusion of his family. Otherwise, Saddam’s bubble and Putin’s share similar characteristics in the effect on the leader.

Both leaders have existed in the absence of outside constraints.  No one said, “You can’t do that.”   Saddam’s worldview (as he acknowledged in debriefings) was incorrect and he partially acknowledged this was due to people around him fearing to accurately inform him.   Those around him were handcuffed to Saddam’s visions and illusions.  Saddam thought Iraq deserved be the dominant Arab country in the region.  He was the successor to Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, and Saladin.  It was his destiny to defeat the Persians.  His aides did not constrain their “visionary” leader although some saw faults and dangers on the horizon.  The same seems true regarding Czar Vladimir Putin.

As for the aides, their fate is difficult to disconnect from the leader. A limited few escaped Saddam’s fate at the end. Those who left early did better. Putin’s inner circle confronts a similar dilemma.  They may see a looming disaster, but may not be able to affect it or escape it. They are chained to the decisions of Putin.  They may wishfully think Putin’s vision for a greater Russia will succeed. Those with younger children who have been schooled in the West and who anticipate a future beyond Putin’s life span or reign must harbor some gnawing doubts.

At the same time their options to affect their futures will shrink.  They are the frogs in the slowly heating pan of water.  It is a classic problem, realized too late by too many.   The fate of dictators soldiers is not good.

Years ago, a friend told me of advice shared between Saddam’s daughter and Qaddafi’s son during the uprising in Libya.  Reportedly she said, you have to get out now, while you can. Things will only get worse and end badly.  This was good advice.  The same may apply to those around Putin—but it may be too late.  Putin’s coterie has diminishing options to do things to improve their own and/or their family’s future.  

So what?   Why should we care?  The reason we must care comes back to the one essential difference between Saddam and Putin—nuclear weapons.  Putin knows the calculus of nuclear war.  The cold war period of his youth seems to be the world he wants to rebuild.    The “balance of terror” of nuclear weapons poses the insoluble dilemma that allows a fundamentally weaker nation to stand up to a larger more successful nation.  Putin can demonstrate that he is willing to risk far more than the US and its allies to achieve his objectives.  The old Cold War question resurfaces, “Will you trade New York for Paris?”  If Putin assumes the role of irrational actor plays chicken wearing a blindfold, we have an existential problem.  

Many have forgotten the complexity and delicacy of nuclear retaliatory response forces.   It is a global system of satellites, radars, warning systems communications, airborne command systems, submarines, missiles, etc. The safety and security systems for nuclear weapons are rightfully extraordinary.  To raise their alert levels is a major step.  Ultimately, the trigger pull at higher alert levels becomes extremely delicate.  If our sensors detect a long range ballistic missile launch, it must be seen and rapidly categorized in terms of type and impact prediction.  A threat judgment must be made and communicated to the President so that a response decision can be made—within the flight time of the missile and Washington—roughly 30 minutes.  Things can go badly wrong and nearly have in the past.  The potential for error in such complicated systems is not trivial.   The Administration postponed a regular test flight of an unarmed ICBM, presumably to reduce the risk of sending an inadvertent signal that could be misinterpreted by Moscow.  

In the past, some near calamities (besides the Cuban missile crisis) have occurred when intelligence, either technical or human, provided indications that were misinterpreted as threats.  In these cases, humans made judgments that a nuclear response wrong. 

For this reason, individuals in the chain of command or in a position to influence the command authority can be vital.   If Putin believes his supernatural boldness can restore the position of the former Soviet Union by risking a nuclear exchange, we may need those around Putin.  Those individuals may be extremely important—sooner rather than later.  They need to know that their interests and global security interests align.  We need to message those around Putin as well as Putin.

Posted in Allies, Intelligence, Iraq, Lavrov, NATO, nuclear weapons, Putin, Russia, Ukraine, WMD | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Pity the Putin Lieutenants? Or, Did Putin Graduate from the Saddam School of Management?

Being close to Putin has its rewards for sure.  But, like other autocrats (my closest experience was dissecting Saddam’s coterie), there are also some severe risks with proximity to the Boss and his decisions.

If Putin finds his Ukraine venture a success, then the lieutenants will continue to do well in the Putin ecosystem (setting aside the effects of any sanctions by the West).  However, if the Ukraine strategy does not go well, blame will be apportioned appropriately (but downward from Putin).  The top advisors must be pretty nervous.  The most visible example is foreign intelligence chief Sergey Naryshkin.  (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-europe-60485967

During the hour and a half long televised Security Council meeting Monday 21 February 2022, Naryshkin was visibly shaking and clearly lost his command of the script.  Putin appeared to play with him like a cat with a captured mouse.  Of course, Naryshkin’s turn at the podium was at 1 hour and 18 minutes of the hour and a half meeting that had multiple participants, including Putin looking at their watches. Putin may have been bored and just twisting him for amusement.  Nevertheless, Naryshkin looked painfully nervous.  As though he had just dropped a document for a foreign service and was worried that Putin’s counter-intelligence chief (Bortnikov) may have had him under surveillance. 

Saddam had equivalent meetings of his Revolutionary Command Council  (we acquired the recordings).  Saddam would sit at one end of a long table surrounded by a dozen or so bobble heads.  It was exactly the same.  More than one of Saddam’s said later that they were very nervous in Saddam’s presence because they sensed that he could somehow deduce what they were thinking.  A sudden fall from grace, sometimes lethal, could ensue.  There may be a little of Saddam in all of us, but Putin seems to have matching DNA.

Speaking of falling of from grace, there are a surprising number of Russian deaths from balcony falls.  A Russian diplomat fell out of an embassy window onto the sidewalk in Berlin in October 2021.  The embassy did not permit an autopsy and declared it a tragic accident.

Russian investigative journalist Maxim Borokin fell from a 50th floor balcony in Yekaterinburg in 2018

Back in the UK, Scott Young, a “fixer” for Russian oligarchs fell out with the government and subsequently fell out of a window in London (ruled a suicide by Scotland Yard).[1]

Of course there are many other sorts of unnatural Russian deaths or near deaths.  Recall polonium poisoning (Litvinenko, 2006, London), nerve agent (Skripal, 2018, Salisbury UK survived), poisoning again, (Bulgarian Emilian Gebrev 2015, survived), nerve agent (Alexei Navalny, Tomsk Russia 2020), gunshots (Khangoshvili, Berlin, 2019),  and the list goes on.

Oh and the US is not a sanctuary.  There is the weird case of Mikhail Lesin, reportedly top media confidante of Putin.   Again, Buzzfeed crisply described the absurd official finding.[2]  Lesin checked into the Dupont Plaza Hotel in Washington in November 5, 2015. Then Lesin supposedly got very drunk and repeatedly fell down causing his own death accidentally by blunt force trauma. A cynic might think some part of USG missed something.

Putin has stated on multiple public occasions that traitors would be punished. The definition of traitor may not be precise.  Traitor to country, traitor to Putin, or framed as a traitor.  There’s room for interpretation and worry. 

So, if I were one of Putin’s guys, I’d be really nervous about the Ukraine campaign.  Like Saddam, Putin is vulnerable not only to his own foibles, but those around him.  In postwar debriefings of Saddam acknowledged that his lieutenants often did not tell him bad news or give candid advice.  Of course, he only acknowledged this after he was in jail and his regime gone.  Things did not end well for most of his aides either.  A few got out early and generally fared better.  But most waited too long and missed the opportunity to escape. 

Putin’s Russia is certainly not Saddam’s Iraq, but there are similarities in the dilemmas faced by the inner circle.  Watching the Putin Security Council meeting and comparing it with Saddam’s equivalent, you can almost match the characters and their roles, e.g. Tariq Aziz for Sergey Lavrov; Tahir Jalil Haboosh for Sergey Naryshkin; Ali Hassan al Majid (“Chemical Ali”) for Sergey Shoigu. 

Putin cannot run the government by himself and his key aides can be a weakness no matter how talented they may be. 

Bear in mind that the US and others may sanction them financially, but Putin can and does sanction Russians permanently.   I would not be surprised to see one or two trying to do the moonwalk out of there.


[1] See Buzzfeed reporting on over a dozen Russian assassinations in the UK. (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/heidiblake/from-russia-with-blood-14-suspected-hits-on-british-soil)

[2] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/jasonleopold/putins-media-czar-was-murdered-just-before-meeting-feds

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Unavoidable Elements of the Ukraine Crisis

Western policy to prevent further Russian aggression in Ukraine is hobbled by a few inescapable problems.

The government in Ukraine is weak from the top down. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is no Vladimir Putin.  While they both stand about 5 foot seven inches tall, Zelensky is not a tough driven individual running a country that is clearly under his control. Zelensky is a former actor and comedian, not a former KGB officer. The government structures under him are wobbly at best.  Ukraine has not yet matured into a cohesive democracy.  Corruption is widespread.  Key institutions—like the security service—have yet to develop into reliable functioning organizations. This does not reflect a lack of will on the part of Ukrainians to defend their independence, but does limit capacity.

If Putin successfully neutralizes the leadership of Ukraine, it will certainly impede our ability to provide aid.  Whose request will we respond to for assistance?  Who will we recognize as the legitimate leader of a disintegrating leadership structure?  Zelensky must be a target of Russian strategy.  He can be undermined, influenced, or removed in a variety of ways.  Russia can find lots of ways of throwing sand in the eyes of its opponents. The West may want to support Ukraine, but if there is no clear leadership this will be a challenge.

Russian influence operations in Kiev are long standing.  Corruption and weak judiciary are familiar operational territory.  “Facts” are whatever gets repeated enough or are most convenient to believe.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is long-practiced in shaping creative narratives.  He was Russian ambassador to the UN from 1994 to 2004 (I knew him when I was the deputy head of the UN Iraq inspection group UNSCOM in the 1990’s.) Frankly, he was the sharpest (both smart and prickly) ambassador in the UN Security Council.  His presentations could easily confuse droopy members in post-lunch meetings that up is down and left is right.  Coincidentally, Lavrov was the Russian representative who signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994 assuring Ukraine that in exchange for giving up its Soviet era nuclear weapons stocks, Russia would not threaten its independence or territorial integrity.  Lavrov would have no problem stating that Russia was in complete compliance with the Budapest agreement according to some convoluted rationale.  It is also important to bear in mind that in the mid-to late 90’s the US and NATO (and especially Madeleine Albright) ran roughshod over Russian concerns raised in the UN when dealing with the conflict in Kosovo.  NATO began bombing without UN Security Council agreement.  Russia was weaker then.  Lavrov has a long memory and, in my opinion, will relish any opportunity to stick it to the US representatives as payback.   

Consider the following:  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s daughter, Ekaterina (bright Columbia University graduate, enjoyed New York during 1990’s), married Alexander Vinokurov, a Cambridge University graduate and very successful Russian businessman.  What do Alexander Vinokurov and President Zelensky have in common?  According to the Pandora financial documents released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, they both have offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands. 

NATO is an alliance of 30 members.  This is both a source of strength and a weakness. Decisions occur by consensus, including agreement on new members. Even if Ukraine one day meets NATO membership standards, President Putin needs only persuade one member to object and he can block Ukraine NATO membership.  Recall some of the current NATO members: Turkey (which purchased Russian S-400 air defense missiles), Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, was just warmly received by Putin in Moscow, Montenegro (find that on a map) which has a population of about 600,000 and a GDP (est. $13 B in 2020) that is much less than Mark Zuckerberg is reported to have lost this week ($24B) when Facebook stock dropped, or Iceland, also about 600,000 population and new good friend of China.  Others include Albania, Slovenia, North Macedonia, and Croatia.  It requires no wild stretch of imagination to consider Putin obtaining some confidential commitment to oppose Ukrainian membership.

The best goal for US policy is a solid defense of all NATO members and prepare for a long-lasting, relatively low-level war in Ukraine.  Enough to bleed Russia without causing them to escalate via war widening moves either geographically, or up the escalation ladder.  Russia has sufficient missile capability (conventional as well as tactical nuclear weapons) to threaten targets throughout Europe.[i]  No NATO member wants that to happen.  So designing for an outcome that just sustains an expensive war for Russia may be the best we can realistically accomplish.  Of course, President Putin may make his decisions based avoiding this.

The sad truth is that none of this bodes well for Ukraine.  But if Russia pursues its aggression, it will be clear Moscow has chosen to be an enemy outside the western economic system.  Russian citizens will pay a heavy economic cost for the foreseeable future.  And, those off-shore accounts will be blocked.   China can help Putin, but does he really want to be dependent on Beijing? 

There may not be a “solution” for the Ukraine problem, but some processes and policies are better than others.


[i] Including from the non-contiguous piece of Russia called Kaliningrad that until the end of World War II was Königsberg, Prussia.  The Germans were expelled and Russians imported.  Now it sits nestled in the midst of NATO on the Baltic between Lithuania and Poland.

Posted in Allies, China, NATO, nuclear weapons, Russia, Ukraine, United Nations | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Oops – Human in the Loop

There was a discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations last week with Henry Kissinger (former Secretary of State) and Eric Schmidt (former chairman of Google) moderated by Judy Woodruff (PBS NewsHour). The subject was their newly released book, “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future”. An unlikely pairing at first, but their book opens the grave subject of the pending consequences of artificial intelligence for international security. Schmidt certainly has a grasp of the magnitude of this technological leap for human activity (and importantly, non-human activity). Kissinger was a prime mover in conceptualizing the implications of the onset of nuclear weapons for international security after World War II. Together they make a compelling case that there will be critical consequences as AI is incorporated in more decisions, information processing and weapons systems among other things. Indeed, they argue the world needs to begin thinking urgently about the strategy implications and rules of the road as AI evolution is advancing rapidly. Policy will have to catch up.

It was a huge challenge to maintain a global security balance as advancing nuclear weapons filled the arsenals of the US and Soviet Union. Deterrence theory, the mechanisms of delivering weapons, command and control, warning systems, targeting strategies, etc. all seemed to evolve together. Technology did not follow a strategic objective as much as strategy was constructed around technical capability. There were elements of great delicacy–for example, did we have sufficient sensor capabilities (satellites, radars) to detect and assess the intentions of an missile attack against the US? Could we do this in time to launch our forces before the missiles or bombers hit their targets? Could a president have sufficient data and time to make such a decision? Fortunately, we never really found out, but the questions were critical. There was serious attention given to the option of “launching under attack.” Possibly we could have done this, but certainly the Soviet side had to consider this response option should they think about trying a “disarming first-strike”. There were many such scenarios considered in the formulation of US and Soviet strategy.

Somehow both sides accumulated enough mutual understanding and evolved rules of the road for a (wobbly) strategic nuclear balance and, with a sizeable amount of luck, nuclear war was avoided during the cold war.

Kissinger and Schmidt point out that we are on the threshold of a similar disruption of strategy and international balance. They point out that among the many things AI presages is that control and understanding of technical and potentially even policy decisions will be beyond the comprehension of simple humans. AI will have the ability to assimilate data beyond our control and be able to determine consequences and outcomes that the human mind simply can’t understand…but it may be logically correct. Where does that fit in the concept and use of force (military or financial market actions)? If we put a human in the loop it may delay or even disrupt a winning outcome for our side. But if we don’t, do we trust Chinese or Russian AI enabled forces to be similarly constrained? AI on one side is not likely to negotiate with AI on the other…or would it? As Kissinger and Schmidt point out, we need to think through these problems sooner rather than later. And eventually some exchange of concepts with Allies and competitors will be necessary.

It’s unnerving to consider automatic responses based on sensors and computers–as a pre-delegated decision by the president to implement a launch-under-attack option.

However, at the Council on Foreign Relations meeting, I inadvertently made the case for the computers. Members connected via zoom and the tool bar beneath the screen has two adjacent button, one for “chat” (which provided a list of participants) and the second was “raise hand” meaning you wanted to ask a question. Well when Woodruff opened the discussion the moderator said “Our first question will be from Charles Duelfer”. I had no intention of asking a question and simply mumbled that was a mistake. I had hit the “raise hand” button in addition to the “Chat” button without noticing it. Had I been quicker thinking, I would have pointed out that my error was an argument for downside of having a human in the loop (or at least not me in the loop).

Indisputably Kissinger and Schmidt raise a looming problem problem where technology is again way ahead of international policy and politics.

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