My latest long-form piece has been published in The Tower magazine. Here's the first part.
Congratulations on winning the election for the 45th president of the United States, but are you sure you really want this?
The world is a mess, as it usually is, and taking on this awesome responsibility right now is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that a devious trickster messed with by moving some of the stickers around.
You are not battling a Hitler or Hirohito that you can bomb into submission. Nor are you facing down a Stalinist empire that you can outspend into oblivion.
You and the citizens whom you have been elected to serve are beset instead by a constellation of problems—international terrorism, rogue states, and a renascent expansionist Russia. These persistent features of our international landscape may not be as dangerous as the Nazi rampage across Europe or the threat of all-out nuclear confrontation, but they are much more intractable. They will bedevil us throughout your presidency and beyond.
You will not be able to democratize the Middle East and drain the swamp of its political pathologies by using regime change or any other tool at your disposal. Nor will you be able to diplomatically “engage” your way to being liked by the Vladimir Putins and Ali Khameneis of the world. You can flush the terrorists of ISIS out of their nests and vaporize them with Predator drones, but they’ll pop up again in some other unstable and anarchic part of the world.
I hate to break it to you, but these are problems to be managed rather than solved. At least the Israelis, who have become masters of this art throughout the brief existence of Jewish state, can commiserate with your unenviable role.
You’re going to have to come to grips with it, though, because it’s all on you now.
The American president, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, is practically a foreign policy dictator. You can start wars without going through Congress. (Congress and the public will complain, don’t kid yourself about that, but it will be too late.) You can end wars—or at least choose to stop fighting and let them continue without you. You can order daring raids against the likes of Osama bin Laden if you think you know where they’re hiding, you can forge and unmake alliances, and you can initiate all kinds of black ops that the public is unlikely to discover as long as they don’t catastrophically fail.
You will have more power and authority on foreign policy than you will over any other area, and since what you do with this power can affect the entire human race, you’d damn well better wield it wisely.
So I’m here to give you some advice, and it’s not quite the same as what you’ll hear from Ivy Leaguers from Foggy Bottom and Langley in their jackets and ties. Unlike most of them, I’ve spent more than a decade on and off in the broken parts of the world. I’ve seen radical Islamic terrorism up close and personal, not just in Lower Manhattan, but also in Beirut and Baghdad. I’ve encountered violent Russian expansionism in person in the post-Soviet republic of Georgia. I’ve spent more time than is good for my health in post-war rubblescapes from Bosnia to Fallujah, and I’ve worked illegally as a journalist inside tyrannical police states from Raul Castro’s Cuba to Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya.
My experience spans a Republican administration and a Democratic administration, and though I haven’t seen it all, I’ve seen enough of it, and I’m here to tell you: No party or ideological faction has The Solution because The Solution doesn’t exist. Much of the world beyond our shores is a wreck, and the best you can pull off right now is damage control.
First things first. You need to get real about Russia.
No more “resets” or “bromances.” Vladimir Putin is not your friend.
He is implacably hostile to the U.S. and Europe for one simple reason. He recoils from the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, just as we would have done had the Soviet Union won the Cold War and expanded the Warsaw Pact to Brussels and Amsterdam.
So Putin pushes back anywhere and everywhere he can. The handful of countries in his backyard that haven’t yet joined the European Union and NATO but might some day—Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, and Moldova—must either bow to Russian hegemony or suffer the consequences.
Armenia and Belarus kiss Putin’s ring, but Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova do not, so Moldova’s breakaway province of Transnistria is occupied by Russian soldiers, while Georgia’s breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, along with Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, aren’t just occupied by the Russians but annexed.
Disputed territory conflicts prevent all of these countries from joining the European Union or NATO.
You can be excused if you didn’t see Russia’s invasion of Georgia coming back in 2008, but Russia’s invasion and bloody dismemberment of Ukraine should have been a no-brainer. I drove from Poland through Ukraine to Crimea in 2010 and predicted in my book, Where the West Ends, that it wouldn’t be long before Russia annexed the region. I said so matter-of-factly. It didn’t even occur to me that the notion would be controversial because it was obvious.
Ukraine’s disaffection with Russia dates back at least to the genocidal hunger-famine of the 1930s, when Josef Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians to death in the name of collectivization. In our post-Soviet era, it was inevitable that Ukraine would receive the Moldovan and Georgian treatment and lose Crimea—the best piece of real estate in the country, where almost everybody speaks Russian instead of Ukrainian, and where the Russian navy bases its Black Sea fleet.
Yet somehow—astonishingly—the CIA and the State Department did not see the Crimea invasion coming.
I’m hardly the only person who did see it. I was in the Georgian capital Tbilisi when Russian soldiers invaded and lopped off parts of that country, and the fact that Ukraine was most likely “next” was the talk of the town among Georgians, journalists, and stressed-out resident diplomats.
Surely you remember George Kennan, our ambassador to the Soviet Union under Harry S. Truman and the architect of our Cold War policy of “containment”? “Russia,” he famously said, “can have at its borders only enemies or vassals.” Any and all of Russia’s borderland countries (the name Ukraine, by the way, means “borderland”) that aren’t under the NATO umbrella and refuse to obey like a good vassal will be invaded and butchered. The was true before the Cold War, it was true during the Cold War, and it’s still true today. It has been true for centuries. Just ask the residents of Siberia and Northeast Asia like the Buryats and the Koryaks who have been conquered so thoroughly that most people don’t even know they exist.
Would it be great if we could get along with Russia or reset relations? Of course. But it’s not going to happen because there’s not a damn thing you can to do change Russia’s national interests or its centuries-long hostility toward its neighbors. You want to know what Putin hears when you outstretch your hand and say we should be partners? He hears what Luke Skywalker heard in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader said, “Join me and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son.”
Your predecessor Barack Obama said to New Yorker editor David Remnick in 2014 that he didn’t need George Kennan. But he did! He also needed a handful of advisers who’d spent at least some time in post-Soviet space while bullets whizzed past their ears.
Are you familiar with the phrase “echelons above reality?” It’s U.S. militaryspeak for the upper-level headquarters that are so far above the ground that the people who work there have no idea what’s actually happening. It’s where you and most of your advisors live. So please, I implore you, invite at least a couple of people into the Oval Office who have some mud on their boots.