NOTE: This is the first in a five part series.
PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
PART II: The Misunderstanding of Vladimir Putin
PART III (July): China Awakens Under Xi Jinping
PART IV (August) Crony Capitalism and the West’s Achilles Heel
PART V (September): The New World (Dis)order
PART I: American Adventurism, Non-Interventionism, Trumpism and Afghan Chaos
“Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a foregone conclusion in my mind. I said late in 2021 that Putin would invade no matter what the West did to try and deter him.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was, in addition to his long-held territorial ambitions, meant to be a test to gauge the West’s unity and resolve, and to provide China with a litmus test for their impending invasion of Taiwan.
To understand how we got here, with Europe facing its largest invasion since WWII, we need to go back to the US invasion of Iraq, and also to events before and after the invasion.
While I am not interested here in arguing about the justification for America’s invasion of Iraq, what is irrefutable is that every one of Cheney and Bush’s assertions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq turned out to be patently false.
Leading up to the invasion, America failed to produce a single credible piece of evidence to back up their claims about Saddam’s ties to Al-Qaeda or his biological weapons stockpile. I stated categorically months before the invasion that the only way the US would find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is if they planted them there.
Also, America was unable to convince a majority of allies to join their illegal invasion. In addition to America and British forces, the grand coalition consisted of Georgia, Australia and Poland, with the three countries sending 2,300, 2,000 and 194 troops, respectively.
Post-invasion, independent and US intelligence agency reviews of millions of documents seized in Iraq conclusively stated that “…there was nothing to substantiate a "partnership" between Hussein and Al-Qaeda.” The report added that there was no ‘smoking gun,’ and everyone knows how many weapons of mass destruction were found.
While the Bush administration sought and got approval from U.S. Congress in 2002 to use military force against “those responsible for the September 11 attacks”, there was and remains no basis in international law to justify America’s invasion of Iraq.
The Bush administration tried to argue that the UN security council resolution which granted use of force to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1990 applied. However, the UN declared that the Iraq invasion was in violation of its Charter. Secretary General Kofi Anan stated unequivocally in 2004, "From our point of view and the UN Charter point of view, it [the war] was illegal.”
Not only did America flagrantly violate international law by invading a sovereign nation without provocation, but the Bush administration broke every legal and democratic norm Americans have claimed to cherish and hold dear since WWII.
Ironically, former President Bush accidentally admitted it last year, when he repudiated Putin for invading Ukraine in a speech in May. He said, “The result is an absence of checks and balances in Russia, and the decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq—I mean of Ukraine.”
Under Bush, America embraced torture, set-up extra-judicial rendition sites in Kuwait, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Tajikistan and other countries. They constructed a prison camp in Guantanamo Bay because it would be outside U.S. legal jurisdiction. There they illegally detained and tortured enemy combatants indefinitely and without charge, denying them Geneva Convention rights and refusing these men access to legal counsel.
Bush and Cheney’s actions damaged America’s moral standing and severely limited the US’s future ability to call out other nations for their transgressions. The unilateral way in which America invaded and occupied Iraq has not been lost on the leaders of China, Russia, Iran and other authoritarian regimes. These regimes watched the U.S. violate international law, trample on enshrined global conventions and use financial muscle, military might and UN Security Council veto power to bribe, blackmail and bully smaller nations into acquiescence or abstention.
Not a single U.S. leader or architect of the Iraq invasion was criminally charged or faced consequences for war crimes. To this day, the U.S. remains a non-signatory to the International Court of Justice (ICC), along with China, Russia, Syria, Qatar and Libya.
In 2008, while America was embroiled in two failing and unpopular wars and in the midst of a financial crisis, Russia invaded Georgia. It was the first time since their 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that they launched a military attack on a neighboring country. While Russian-Georgian tensions had been simmering since the breakup of the USSR, it was Georgia’s tilt toward the West that drove Putin’s decision to invade.
Georgia joined the US-led coalition in Iraq, sending the third largest contingent of troops, which had earned Putin’s ire. Then in 2004 they elected a pro-West leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who actively sought membership to NATO and wanted to move his country away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
At the 2008 NATO Summit President Bush surprised everyone by lobbying to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia. This crossed a red line for Putin, who was clear that he was not willing to lose control of former Soviet Union breakaway republics, because they provided a security buffer between Russia and the West. Putin’s invasion of Georgia began a few months after the summit.
France brokered the ceasefire agreement which stipulated the removal of Russian troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions at the center of the dispute. The agreement was hastily put together and tilted in favor of Russia, as a result of public divisions within the EU. Italy’s Foreign Minister at the time said “We cannot create an anti-Russia coalition in Europe…on this point we are close to Putin's position.”
Vice-President Cheney condemned Russia’s actions and declared that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” Yet, that is precisely what happened with a muted response from the US and Europe. There was no punishment when Russia violated the terms of ceasefire by declaring Abkhazia and South Ossetia independent countries, and kept their occupying forces on Georgian soil; who remain to this day.
Russia’s aggression paid-off, without any costs to Putin. The Georgian President warned the US not to placate Putin, and prophetically said at the time that the Georgian invasion was the beginning of Putin’s ambitions, and not the limit of it.
The Obama years were a welcome change, and his administration attempted to repair the damage done by the previous one. On day one he declared he would shutter Guantanamo Bay, and later summed up his foreign policy doctrine as “Don’t do stupid shit”.
Mr. Obama’s approach made sense, compared to his predecessor’s shoot from the hip style but it would come to be viewed as weakness, based on Mr. Obama’s repeated and dogmatic refusal to use force, in a world with rising authoritarianism.
In 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself alight to protest corruption and police brutality. This act set in motion a series of violent mass protests across the Middle East and North Africa, which came to be known as The Arab Spring.
However, unlike in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen where ruling dictators were toppled, the uprising in Syria was met with a brutal crackdown. Bashar Al-Assad used his military to mercilessly kill peaceful protestors and stamp out the popular rebellion.
At the time President Obama warned Assad saying that "This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now.” While the condemnation was strong, Mr. Obama resisted any US intervention in Syria. This despite his senior advisors, defense and national security teams urging him to take limited military action.
Their recommendation was not to put US boots on the ground, but to train and equip the Syrian resistance, to set up safe zones and to launch targeted air strikes to degrade Assad’s air force. Their strategy was designed to force Assad to the negotiating table, rather than defeat him on the battlefield. However, Obama steadfastly refused and agreed only to provide humanitarian aid and light non-lethal equipment to the rebels.
Sensing Obama’s hesitation and unable to quell widespread and growing unrest across the country, in early 2012, Assad used chemical weapons and gassed his citizens. Meanwhile, the vacuum on the battlefield, created by Obama's refusal to arm the rebels, got filled by a loose and dangerous network of jihadis fighting for Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and other affiliated terrorist groups.
In late 2102, President Obama stated at a White House press briefing, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.“
The world, including his Secretaries of Defense and State saw the red-line as an ultimatum for the use of force. Vice-president Biden warned The President not to make a public declaration because he feared it would need to be acted on. He was right. Seeing America back-down after drawing a public red-line emboldened every dictator and authoritarian leader from China to Venezuela.
Ironically, it was Mr. Obama who said during his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that“inaction tears at our conscience, and can lead to more costly interventions later…”. The U.S. President’s repeated refusal to act would have devastating consequences not just for the Syrian people but the world at large.
Even before the votes were cast in the 2016 US presidential election, a few things began to embolden Mr. Putin. First, the Obama administration’s strategic and costly error in downplaying the Russian state-sponsored hacking, which they uncovered in the summer of that year after DNC servers were found to be compromised.
Obama chose not to respond forcefully because he wanted to be seen as impartial and because everyone in his administration believed Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, so they decided that starting“a cyber war with Russia wasn’t worth it.”
Mr. Putin was also emboldened by candidate Trump’s open embrace of Russia. One that resulted in a bizzare public plea, at a press conference in Florida, where he said "Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," "I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Third was the result of Putin’s high-risk disinformation gamble, which exceeded even his wildest expectations. Putin had succeeded in sowing mistrust amongst the US electorate and deepening existing divisions among Americans across the political spectrum.
Through the Mueller investigation we learned that the Kremlin’s elaborate campaign had a $1.2 million monthly budget that was used for identity theft, which enabled Russian spies to enter the US under false pretenses. The Russian agents set up meetings with legitimate organisations for fact-finding and on-the-ground research in swing states. Information that was used to set up fake grass roots organisations, social media accounts, run anti-Clinton ads and even stage local events. The Russian’s even paid Americans to appear at Trump rallies dressed as Mrs. Clinton in a prison uniform.
Once Trump became president it was clear that he lacked cohesive vision and coherent strategy to guide his foreign policy. His decisions were instead driven by his whims. One minute he would contradict military commanders about troop withdrawals by tweet, and next make decisions that lined up with his personal business interests. Trump continued to publicly express his admiration for dictators and bragged about his great chemistry with them while showing disdain for NATO.
Mr. Trump’s first official trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, a place where his love of dictatorship and personal business coincided. Upon arrival Trump’s first words were“We are not here to lecture. We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” Next came his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, followed in early 2018 with the termination of JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal.
In 2017, after Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt abruptly cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, accusing them of supporting terrorism. Trump welcomed the move, even as his Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense were publicly reenforcing America’s relationship with Qatar, a country that hosts a key US Air Base and is the regional headquarters of U.S. Central Command.
At the G-20 Summit in Hamburg Trump had a second meeting with Putin which was not disclosed by the White House. This meeting broke protocol as Trump met with Putin for over an hour without any other US officials present and without his translator. It was just Mr. Trump, Mr. Putin and his translator. This was followed by a two-hour summit in Helsinki between the two leaders, again with no US officials except a translator.
Trumpism was defined by chaotic, contradictory and haphazard foreign policy, most often out of sync with his own administration. Trump broke with decades of US policy by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In agreeing to meet with Kim Jong Un, twice, he became the first sitting US President in history to do so and set foot in North Korea.
Mr. Trump defended Saudi Arabia after they murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying on NBC’s Meet the Press, "Iran's killed many, many people a day. Other countries in the Middle East; this is a hostile place. This is a vicious, hostile place. If you're going to look at Saudi Arabia, look at Iran, look at other countries,"
It is true that Trump administration agreed to send lethal aid to Ukraine, which Mr. Obama’s had refused, but Mr. Trump was also the one who held a gun to President Zelensky’s head. Mr. Trump put on hold on US military aid unless Ukraine agreed to investigate Joe Biden, which led to his first impeachment trial.
Throughout his presidency Mr. Trump made false claims about Ukraine, privately and publicly. A respected diplomat told lawmakers during the impeachment inquiry, that Trump had said to him “Ukraine was a corrupt country, full of 'terrible people.'" The US President was the same man who praised Putin in 2014 when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and said at the time that “the rest of Ukraine will fall … fairly quickly…”
In 2014, Trump defended Russia despite evidence showing that a Russian missile shot down a Malaysian Airlines plane, killing all 208 passengers on board. It would not be an understatement to say that Mr. Putin believed he had an ally in the White House, and on the heels of his 2016 election disinformation campaign success, it left him feeling more emboldened for his future invasion of Ukraine.
Trump’s final act as president was to withdraw from the Open Skies treaty, the third arms control agreement he withdrew the US from. His administration claimed they were doing so because the Russians had been violating the agreement, but the US too had placed their own restrictions on it. Mr. Trump went ahead despite NATO countries expressing “regret” over the US intention to withdraw, stating that despite its problems the treaty remained “functioning and useful”.
Biden’s Afghan Chaos
China, Iran and Russia made hay of the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Without question they saw both failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of declining US military power and influence.
Mr. Putin stated with glee on the anniversary of Washington’s twenty-year intervention in Afghanistan, “The result is zero, if not to say that it is negative”. A Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said of the chaotic scenes of people clinging and falling from aircraft wheels, “American myth down. More and more people are awakening.”
The Afghan withdrawal made the Biden administration look incompetent and weak. Especially after the US president had publicly stated that there would be an orderly withdrawal and assured the world that US intelligence assessments made him confident that a Taliban takeover of the country was "highly unlikely” and would take at least six months to a one year - not the 10 days it actually took.
Within the backdrop of the disastrous Afghan exit, the Biden administration had also been working to forge closer ties with Ukraine. In July, 2021, under Mr. Trump, the US and Ukraine conducted joint naval exercises with 32 other countries from six continents participating. Operation Sea Breeze almost escalated into conflict after a British naval destroyer entered Russian territorial waters, and the Russians fired at it.
In January 2021, right after President Biden assumed office, Mr. Zelensky appealed to US President to let Ukraine join NATO. After receiving assurances of US support from Mr. Biden, President Zelensky signed a decree freezing the assets of Viktor Medvedchuk, a political heavyweight with close ties to the Kremlin and placed him under house arrest.
Mr. Medvedchuk’s was Putin’s choice for replacing Mr. Zelensky and heading up a puppet government in Ukraine. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter. Soon after his arrest Russia began amassing troops on the Ukraine border, claiming they were conducting training exercises.
In November that year, as Russian troops continued to amass on Ukraine’s borders, Mr. Biden signed the “US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership” a document stating a commitmentto help Ukraine achieve “full integration into European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.”
This was a red line for Putin, going back to the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990’s, when according to his version of history, the West promised that they would never expand NATO into the former USSR’s backyard. However, diplomats engaged in those negotiations, scholars and even former President Gorbachov have acknowledged that no such promise was made.
By December 2021, around 100,000 Russian troops, tanks and heavy artillery had been deployed around Ukraine’s borders. Russia issued security demands which included NATO pulling back troops and weapons from eastern Europe and barring Ukraine from ever joining the alliance.
While the West rebuffed their demands, they once again misjudged Mr. Putin. Ignoring history, they believed that the US President’s public and private warnings that an invasion would result in disaster for the Russian economy and for Mr. Putin personally would be deterrent enough to get the Russian President to act rationally.
Read next installment in June: