I attended the Ronald Reagan National Defense Forum (RNDF) in Simi Valley on Saturday, November 7, 2015. This annual gathering of the leaders of national defense past and present is a one day post-graduate education on the current state of U.S. military policy. If one has the ear trained to see in between the prepared and extemporaneous remarks, one can get a peek into our nation's posture and the deliberations behind it.
The Ronald Reagan Library is a grand venue for talking about important things be it presidential debates or what today's version of President Reagan's National Security Decision Directive 75 for "Peace Through Strength" should be in times of transition and turbulence. Hanging over the proceedings is Boeing VC-137C tail number 72-7000, call sign SAM 27000, also known during its service as Air Force One. It has witnessed its share of transition and turbulence during its time in the air from 1972 to 1991.
If you did anything of meaning in that era, you were probably touched by that airplane. Mine happened on October 11, 1986 when I found myself in a long and arduous phone call from then Colonel Robert E. Linhard calling from Air Force One on subjects related to arms control. The plane was parked on the runway at Reykjavik, Iceland while Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev negotiated at Hofdi House. It was the day the Soviets became our friends; the day Gorbachev would later say was the day the Cold War ended.
At the luncheon keynote speech of the 2015 RNDF, U.S. Secretary of Defense Hon. Ashton B. Carter began his prepared remarks under the shadow of SAM 27000. I listened to his presentation of U.S. military policy intently as did every other trained ear among the 600 plus people in attendance.
I listened to Sec. Carter reaffirm the Administration's commitment to fight ISIL. Something always bothers me about the narrow meaning of the term ISIL. Most Americans do not realize just how precise the term is. Having just read the translation of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri's most recent letter from his hiding hole, the SecDef's remarks struck a funny chord. In his October 2015 letter, Zawahiri takes great pain to outline that his organization believes ISIL should abandon operations in Syria and that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi should move and consolidate his work on the IS caliphate in Iraq. Zawahiri goes on to state that he wishes the Syrian Sunni Muslim al-Nusra Front of al-Qaeda take control of Syria.
I wondered how many other trained ears in the room picked up on the fact that the one organization in the Middle East the United States Department of Defense has orders to attack is also the one al-Qaeda has issued orders to desist. Makes you kind of wonder just exactly what our objectives are in this. We fight al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and also fund and supply the al-Nusra Front of al-Qaeda. It's very muddled. I find myself actually yearning for someone in the Administration to write a letter as cogent as al-Zawahiri's about who wins and loses US support. The Russians of course are quite clear in their mission statement. They support the regime of President Bashsar al-Assad for their own national interest reasons and use their air power to bomb both ISIL and al-Nusra. This clarity of Russian purpose clearly perturbs the US Administration.
And so we get to the core of Secretary Carter's keynote remarks about US foreign policy at the RNDF. Speaking officially, the SecDef announced that US policy is now one of confronting Russia specifically over their actions in Syria and generally in other parts of the world as well. I'm assuming by that Sec. Carter means Ukraine where the Russians are arduously working out the borders that were hastily drawn when the CIS was created in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. Of course, given that it's a forum sponsored by the many defense industry companies that supply the US and its allies, it could be an allusion to the fact that as US influence wanes people are buying more Russian and Chinese hardware instead of spending their money on US foreign military sales purchases. I wonder if one day T-14 Armata's will outnumber M-1 Abram's on the sands of the great deserts.
But the core message of the RNDF keynote speech is the Administration has decided to take the United States of America towards a confrontational tone with the Russians. The same with the Chinese as we cruise our ships through the South China Sea to remind them that the United States still considers itself the maritime power of planet Earth. I hope this hawkish position by a liberal President is well coordinated and has strong bi-partisan consensus within our government. It seems to me more reactionary than strategic. This makes me worry. It certainly has not been openly debated or explained to the American people prior to taking these positions that the world has become a less friendly place than the day the sun set over Iceland on the 11th of October 1986. Have we finally spent the last pennies of the Gipper's "Peace Dividend"?