Foreign Policy Blogs

GailForce: Aspen Security Forum Part II

MC3 Ian Carver/U.S. Navy

MC3 Ian Carver/U.S. Navy

It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.

Winston Churchill

I woke up in the middle of the night a couple of days ago and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to get up and see what was going on in the world. There were a couple of reports in The New York Times and one in Defense One that caught my eye.  The first was an update on the Russia/Ukraine crisis. I found the following paragraph particularly disturbing:

“Over the past several weeks, Russia has built up 17 battalions — totaling 19,000 to 21,000 troops, according to one Western estimate — into a battle-ready force of infantry, armor, artillery and air defense within a few miles of the border. In addition, it has vastly expanded its firepower, increasing the number of advanced surface-to-air missile units to 14 from eight, and deploying more than 30 artillery batteries, according to the officials.”

That report along with additional reporting indicating the Russians were conducting major military exercises, some of which would take place with the Ukraine border, left me feeling uneasy and wondering if this yet another escalation in the ongoing crisis. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but are their plans in the work to address this problem? I suspect there are and understand the need for secrecy, but these days conflicts and crises are also being fought using social media so….?  Is there a sense of urgency?

The second was an article about four young middle class, well-educated men from India who were apparently recruited over the Internet by the group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and have joined the fight in Iraq.  According to the article, it is considered highly unusual for Muslims from India to take part in sectarian conflicts in the Middle East.  It’s yet another reminder of the worldwide nature of the conflict.  This combined with continuing reports of territorial gains by ISIS in Iraq and recently in Lebanon underscores the gravity of the situation.  Why is not more being done by the U.S. and international community to counter this threat?  Again, where is the sense of urgency?

The third article tackled the question of what is perceived by some as the slow and/or inadequate response of the Obama administration to various crises like Syria, Iraq and Russian/Ukraine due to over-centralization of the decision making process, with the president and his close advisers at the helm as opposed to delegating the process.

From the Gaza war to Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and the Afghan elections, there are so many conflicts occurring at once that the Obama administration’s tight-gripped method of handling global crises at the top is starting to show cracks.

“Former senior Defense Department and State Department officials are saying the growing number of conflicts demanding the attention and leadership of the United States means it is time the White House start delegating more…In his memoir former Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it “by far the most centralized and controlling in national security of any I had seen” since the Nixon White House.”

I know from my time in government that a whole lot of activity is going on behind the scenes and under the public and media radar, but I can’t get the urgency question out of my mind. Is there a sense of urgency within the Obama administration? Why is it taking us so long to come up with major responses to these various events? This brings me to what I’d like to blog about — some more insights about these and other questions I gained from attending the recent Aspen Security Forum.

Many of the speakers said they could not remember a time when there were so many conflicts going on at the same time in the world. Several indicated it was a situation the U.S. should not and could not solve alone.  For example, Lt. General Flynn, the outgoing head (August 7 is his last day on the job) of the Defense Intelligence Agency said every problem we face is an international problem that requires an international solution.  During an interviewed at the forum by CBS 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl and in response to a question on ISIS, General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, remarked:

“…and what makes this very hard is that the ultimate defeat has to come from within the Sunni population…it can be enabled and assisted by us, but at that point when we will be able to consider them defeated, it’ll be because the moderate Sunnis of the world and the region reject them…ISIS or ISIL will be defeated because pressure is placed on it from multiple directions and with multiple partners.”

He emphasized the U.S. would not take this on through unilateral action.

Ms. Stahl told General Dempsey she didn’t get a sense of urgency on the problem from him.  In response, the general replied:

“I wouldn’t suggest to you that I don’t feel some urgency about…the ISIL threat…ISIL has some longer term objectives that we should acknowledge.  And we should take the longer view on how to deny them those objectives.  The immediate task is to determine whether Iraq has a political future, because if Iraq has a political future, then we will work through Iraq among others to deal with the ISIL threat.  If Iraq does not have a political future as an inclusive unity government, then we’re going to have to find other partners….What I’m talking about is a strategy that initially assesses, tries to better understand the threat, assesses that which exists or remains, that can either contain it or degrade it, and what that force might need if it were to try to defeat ISIL to work on the periphery to squeeze this thing from as many directions as possible…to precipitously…take military action might gain some tactical advantage…wouldn’t do much for us to build the kind of strategy I think we need.”

Ms. Stahl asked if the U.S. military totally committed to destroying ISIS. General Dempsey replied:

“The United States military does consider ISIL a threat to — initially to the region and our close allies, longer term to the United States of America. And therefore we are preparing a strategy that has a series of options to present to our elected leaders on how we can initially contain, eventually disrupt, and finally defeat ISIL over time.”

In a later session moderated by Margaret Warner, the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for the PBS NewsHour, Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism shared some further insights on the topic.  Here are some points she made that jumped out at me:

  • ISIS is a threat for what it portends. Any time you have freedom of movement for extremists that is going to concern someone in her job.
  • Most concerning is ability of ISIS to take and hold ground.
  • It’s a very complicated problem, but of great concern is unprecedented number of foreign fighters. Additionally, the proximity to Turkey and threat to the homeland is what also concerns her.
  • We have provided a great deal of support to the moderate Syrian opposition.
  • There is a need to develop a counterterrorism architecture in ways we have not done before.
  • We have to do a better job at sharing information with our allies, building up those partnerships.
  • Need to develop a Plan B for Iraq if they don’t have the requested better government. (I wondered if that meant they haven’t already thought that through.)

I will end with some comments General Dempsey made in response to questions by MS. Stahl about Russia:

“I think this is very clearly Putin the man himself with a vision for Europe as he sees it for — to what he considers to be an effort to redress grievances that were burdened upon Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and also to appeal to ethnic Russian enclaves across Eastern Europe with both in a foreign policy objective but also a domestic policy objective. And he’s very aggressive about it. And he’s got a playbook that has worked for him now two or three times.”

General Dempsey also said he believed Putin was taking a decision to escalate the crisis.  Ms. Stahl asked if we (the U.S.) was just sitting around having “phone conversations”?  The general replied:

“I missed half of the conference today — for reasons that I won’t share with you…we have a very active ongoing process to think through what support we may provide to Ukraine. That debate is ongoing. We have conversations with our NATO allies about increasing their capability and readiness. We’re looking inside of our own readiness models to look at things we haven’t had to look at for 20 years frankly, about basing and lines of communication and sea lanes…what…the military does…when faced with these crises is — our job is preparedness, deterrence, and readiness. And I can assure you that we are providing our NATO allies with forces to help them deter. We are looking at our own readiness models. And I know you’re going to ask me a question later about whether our current budget status is helpful or hurtful in that regard. But we’re not sitting still, even though I’m literally sitting still right now.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the military has prepared and is continuously updating strategies to address a variety of scenarios. What is still unclear to me is why the Obama administration is taking so long to announce a course of action.  They’ve talked about economic sanctions and diplomatic efforts to counter Russia’s actions in Ukraine, as well as about providing aid to moderate rebel groups in Syria. What about Iraq? Are not the assessments from military members sent into Iraq complete?

Think I’ll end here.  I will be providing more insights from the Aspen Security Forum in my next blog.  As always my views are my own.



Gail Harris

Gail Harris’ 28 year career in intelligence included hands-on leadership during every major conflict from the Cold War to El Salvador to Desert Storm to Kosovo and at the forefront of one of the Department of Defense’s newest challenges, Cyber Warfare. A Senior Fellow for The Truman National Security Project, her memoir, A Woman’s War, published by Scarecrow Press is available on