Thursday, November 29, 2018

Tucker Carlson 11/27/2018

How long will the U.S. remain in Afghanistan?

American Soldiers continue to die 17 years after Afghanistan War began

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Case for Leaving Syria

With the military and various domestic programs facing budget cuts, the United States shouldn't be throwing more money at the Middle East.

by Douglas Macgregor

Professor Michael Howard, the eminent British historian, frequently stated, “Wars are not tactical exercises writ large… They are conflicts of societies, and they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the society fighting them.” The professor must have anticipated the Syrian Civil War.

In Syria, the civil war that killed as many as 400,000 people is over. Moscow’s ally in Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad, is the victor.

It’s true that the predominantly Sunni Arab opposition— virtually indistinguishable from a broad range of Sunni Islamist terrorist groups—to Assad clings to life inside Syria’s Idlib enclave , but its days are numbered. Thanks to an agreement reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Sunni jihadist forces will eventually leave the demilitarized zone, patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces, together with forces from Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and Iranian-backed Shia Arab paramilitaries, have essentially erased Islamic State-controlled territory from the map. Clearly, an American military withdrawal from Syria would seem in order, right?

Unfortunately, President Donald Trump’s Special Envoy to Syria , Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, is already recasting the American military mission in Northeast Syria as both ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS and as “ contesting more actively Iran’s activities particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen .” Jeffrey adds, “ This means we are not in a hurry to pull out .”

Is this a new form of diplomatic mission creep? Are “ Never Trumpers ” like Robert Kagan and Eliot Abrams now guiding Trump foreign policy? It’s complicated.

In the Northeast corner of Syria, anti-Western Marxist Kurds remain committed to an independent, national homeland in Syria—a development that Ankara views as an existential threat to the Turkey. Since Syria’s U.S.-equipped Kurdish militia provides the backbone for Washington’s anti-ISIS ground force Washington keeps special forces troops in Syria to work with the Kurds, thereby placing 2,000 U.S. troops directly in the path of a potential Turkish Army offensive.

Israel is acutely sensitive to what happens in Syria. Until fifteen Russians were killed in an accident Moscow blames on Israel’s fighter jets , Russian acquiescence allowed Israelis to launch more than 200 air and missile strikes against Iranian military sites inside Syria. Israel wants the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria to remain and act as a shock absorber for Israel; obstructing the movement of people and arms from Iran to Iran’s ally Hezbollah in Lebanon and protecting Israel’s potential Kurdish ally from Turkish attack.

In sum, the Syrian civil war is over and the “ enemy of my enemy ” principle applies to all of the regional actors. There are no moderates among the Sunni Arab or Kurdish factions, Turkey is at most a paper ally, and Washington’s strategic partners—Israel and Saudi Arabia—have interests that do not necessarily align with President Trump’s stated goal of building regional stability .

The United States has no strategic interest in Syria that justifies a war with Russia, Iran or Turkey. A war with any of these states would destroy the prosperity that President Trump has worked tirelessly to create. Instead, it makes sense to withdraw U.S. forces. An American military withdrawal from Syria would eliminate the fragile strategic rationale for Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria and severely obviate the few shared interests that tie Iran to Russia .

Moscow does not view its interest in Damascus in isolation from Israeli national security or the Islamist threat to Russia. Erdogan’s clandestine support for his Islamist allies is never far from Putin’s thoughts, and Putin knows that Tel Aviv has nothing to gain from hostility toward Moscow .

Given this strategic picture, Professor Michael Howard would advise President Trump to simply “get out” of Syria. Like most Americans, Howard would not be persuaded that further developments in Syria are, or plausibly could be, a serious threat to the United States, but congress is another matter.

Members of both parties need cash to fund their re-election campaigns and the liberal interventionist-neoconservative foreign policy machine is strictly bipartisan. The machine has cash, but it is fighting a losing battle.

Americans are not interested in war . In 1975, it was “No more Vietnams;” today, it’s “No more Iraqs, Libyas, Nigers, Somalias, Afghanistans” or any number of self-defeating interventions in dysfunctional societies and failed states.

Now, on the precipice of more cuts in defense spending with the survival of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid at stake, the misguided use of U.S. military power and the disaster it creates are not affordable. Politicians and their dependence on donors for reelection guarantee a slow death to the employment of U.S. military power as the global shock absorber, but it is dying.

Colonel (ret.) Douglas Macgregor, U.S. Army, is a decorated combat veteran, a PhD, and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory , Naval Institute Press, 2016.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Europe's new regional defense

‘Macron’s disease’ and the cure of European burden sharing 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

It’s official. Europe will soon have its own army and, presumably, its own regional defense. At least that is the stated goal of French President Emmanuel Macron. Mr. Macron is restating a position that German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted some time ago that, “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”

Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel have a point. The time to Europeanize NATO is long overdue. After all, the European Union’s economy is more than five times as large as Russia’s.
Privately, NATO’s European military elites are unenthusiastic. They refer to the dangers of “Macron’s disease.” In the minds of European military elites, Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel are engaged in a dangerous game of self-deception because NATO’s command, control, communications, computers and overhead intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems, (C4ISR), are entirely American.
Fortunately, there is a cure for Mr. Macron’s disease: President Trump should announce that, henceforth, the United States will no longer supply a U.S. Four Star to serve as Supreme Commander Europe (SACEUR). It is time to turn over responsibility for the command of European defense forces to a European Four Star selected by the NATO Council. Let NATO collectively acknowledge that the alliance is truly more European than American in the composition of its armed forces. In other words, unburden U.S. taxpayers from Europe’s defense, and let our prosperous European allies foot their own security bill.
This policy change will force Europeans to invest tens of billions of euros over the next decade to develop their own C4ISR and build a credible regional defense system. This approach will undoubtedly be supported by a U.S. military capability to surge as needed from a pool of forces (air, land and sea) that is predominantly in the Western Hemisphere, but Europeans must begin to defend themselves.
For 50 years, Washington has treated change beyond America’s borders — change in governments, borders, interests or trade relations that Washington did not initiate or propose — as something to be resisted. The outcome in the Washington Swamp is an unstated, but institutional national security strategy of being aggressive everywhere, all the time.
The result is the global distribution of U.S. military power from Norway to Japan buttressed by an endless list of highly improbable warfighting scenarios that are used to justify massive defense spending on an anachronistic military structure with its roots in WWII and the Cold War. This condition is undesirable, unaffordable and dangerous.
It is undesirable because the last 50 years of American military assistance have converted great nations that were once Washington’s most important military allies into military dependencies of the United States. NATO is decomposing, in part, because Berlin, Paris, Rome and London willingly consigned responsibility for their nations’ defense to Washington.
Most of Europe’s armed forces are boutique militaries designed for low intensity conflict or peace-keeping operations. The contemporary German army — America’s most potent and capable Cold War military partner on the European continent — is now effectively irrelevant.
This is not surprising. The original national interests and regional threats that gave NATO meaning and purpose are no longer shared across national lines. Germans do not share the East Europeans’ fear of Russia. Greeks fear Turkey — now a “paper ally only” inside NATO — as well as the soft invasion of Sunni Islamist Arabs, not Russia.
It is unaffordable because both political parties consistently refused to raise taxes to pay for America’s global defense mission. High on debt and seemingly intoxicated with military power, Washington’s interventionist, bipartisan foreign and defense policymakers (i.e. the Swamp) added debt-financed global military power to debt-financed consumption with the result that by 2023, the interest payment to service the national debt will likely exceed the size of the U.S. national defense budget.
Finally, 70 years after WWII, it is also self-evident that post-industrial warfare will not require the conversion of private sector manufacturing to federal control or the mobilization of millions of American citizens in uniform. The proliferation, range and lethality of precision-guided weapon systems linked to overhead ISR (ISR-STRIKE) demand a fundamental shift in U.S. national security strategy away from defending forward — garrisoning foreign territory — at enormous risk to U.S. Forces and unnecessary expense to the American people.
Mr. Trump accepts the burden of preserving the peace on the strategic level by maintaining the world’s most powerful military establishment, but Mr. Trump knows that Washington’s interest in good relations with European States must not relieve Europeans from the obligation to adequately defend their own countries. The president will not permit a weak ally to plunge the United States into a war that the American people need not fight.
In 1914, when the British intervened on the European Continent to support the French and the Russians against Germany and Austria-Hungary, the British were far too confident of their military superiority. They grossly underestimated their German opponent. By the war’s end in 1918, British national power was spent. Britain permanently lost its ability to shape the international system to its advantage. To paraphrase Arnold J. Toynbee, “The British Empire died from suicide, not from murder.”
President Trump’s demand that Europeans invest in their own defenses reflects his determination to avoid the mistake that London made; to make a repetition of 1914 impossible. Thus, if Mr. Trump declines to furnish another Four Star to command the NATO military alliance, President Macron and Chancellor Merkel should welcome the opportunity to end their dependence on Washington and shape their own destinies.
• Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a decorated combat veteran and the author of five books. His latest is “Margin of Victory” (Naval Institute Press, 2016).

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Media Tries to Conscript Generals Into Their Anti-Trump War

David Ignatius is only the latest to wax hopeful about a civil-military crisis. 
November 21, 2018

U.S. Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and Marine Corps General James Dunford in New Delhi, India  Sept. 6, 2018. (DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro) 
In their ongoing attempt to fan the Resistance, the media has been breathlessly speculating over whether top civilian and military leaders will openly defy President Donald Trump’s troop deployment to the U.S.-Mexican border.
Over the last several days, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford have been peppered with loaded questions about the border mission and even encouraged to challenge the president. Most recently, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who speaks straight from the belly of the foreign policy establishment, spent an entire column suggesting that Mattis was losing credibility for not taking a stand.
Ignatius apparently believes Mattis and Dunford should openly question Trump’s order to send 6,000 troops to the border to deal with the approaching caravan of Central American migrants. This is no light suggestion: it undermines the critical norms and principles concerning civilian control of the military.
The problem begins with Ignatius’s description of Mattis as “a stand-up guy—the sort of independent, experienced leader who can steady the nation in a time of division” (emphasis added). While intended to be a compliment, this remark exposes either ignorance or an attempt to mislead the public as to the role and responsibility of the secretary of defense.
“Mattis certainly possesses an ‘independent intellect,’” Giselle Donnelly, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told TAC. “But he’s very much a core component of the military’s chain of command, second only to the commander-in-chief.” Donnelly added that the secretary can function as a check on the president, but the position does not exist for the purpose of obstructing the commander-in-chief. Rather, Mattis is supposed to be the executor of policies formulated in the White House. If he cannot fulfill this function, the president is well within his right to relieve him of his duties.
Author and commentator Colonel Douglas Macgregor (Ret.) was blunter, saying, “[Mattis] in no way functions in an independent capacity.” He described the op-ed as just another episode in the ongoing political squabble between Trump and the “Resistance.” Both he and Donnelly said Ignatius had little basis for making a call for such drastic action. America is not approaching a “red line,” as Ignatius described it, where Trump is about to commit a tragic error requiring intervention.
If Mattis harbors any reservations about Trump’s decision making, he has a responsibility to duly advise, warn, and suggest alternate courses of action to his superior. In fact, if the accounts in journalist Bob Woodward’s recent exposé are accurate, it’s clear that Mattis has differed from the president before and is willing to express opposition to his boss (though the manner in which he did stirred controversy).
But ultimately, Trump and Mattis constitute a team, with Trump as team leader. As Mark Nevitt, Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and former Navy JAG, explains, the chain-of-command “places the civilian president and defense secretary as partners in ensuring civilian control over the uniformed military. Trump and Mattis are the legal guarantors of civilian control within the executive branch, not Mattis and Dunford.” This means neither the media nor the public should expect the secretary and chairman to “save” the military from the commander-in-chief.  
Failure to enforce the president’s ultimate authority on military matters could also lead to the normalization of open disobedience, especially if it comes to be perceived as virtuous. “If the secretary disobeys the president once, it can easily happen again,” Donnelly warned, adding, “Ignatius is playing with fire.”
Equally reckless is the insistence by retired officers, including an anonymous four-star general cited by Ignatius, that General Dunford “needs to speak up.” The fact that this is coming from figures who once wore the uniform is worrisome, since it asks of Dunford, an active-duty, uniformed military officer, the unfathomable: open violation of a fundamental precept of military ethos.
As noted by James Joyner in The National Interest, any dissent or reservation needs to be aired in private. “[Dunford’s] public commentary,” writes Joyner, “ought to reflect the policy preferences of the elected decision-makers, not his own preferences nor those of the top brass.” That neither the secretary nor chairman can speak openly is the price of admission to the highest military ranks.
It’s become clear that the media is trying to sniff out any possible dissension among Trump’s generals. In an interview with the press over the weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum, Dunford was repeatedly asked for his opinion about the border situation. When a BBC reporter inquired whether the military would take a hit for engaging in the mission, Dunford replied that it would not. 
“We do have a very strong, nonpartisan, apolitical ethos in the U.S. military. And I view one of my more important responsibilities as the chairman as being the steward of that ethos,” he said.
Meanwhile, retired officers have stepped up their own attacks against the president, fueling the media speculation that the military is turning against the White House. Retired Admiral William H. McRaven has perhaps been the most outspoken, saying in a Washington Post op-ed that he would “consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance as well, so I can add my name to the list of men and women who have spoken up against your presidency.” Trump dismissed him as a “Hillary Clinton backer” in an interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. 
Donnelly believes the retired officers are allowing themselves to become caught up in the hyper-partisanship of the times, motivated by a belief they are doing the “right thing” in criticizing a controversial president. Macgregor, on the other hand, thinks they are being used by anti-Trump forces in the media and elsewhere to undermine the administration.
“The media isn’t above wrapping itself in the flag,” Macgregor added. “They will use the prestige afforded by those who’ve served in uniform as a means of injecting credibility into their struggle against Trump.” More troubling is the possibility that retired officers are doing the talking for those still serving inside the Pentagon. This suggests the discontent towards the commander-in-chief among the top brass is real.
Macgregor also sees Mattis and Dunford (but Mattis in particular) being built up by the media as the ideal “heroes” against the “villain” Trump. But he and Donnelly both view this as a losing game. While speaking out against Trump may damage the president politically, not only would the damage be temporary, Mattis and Dunford would pay the biggest price in the long run.
“They would lose all credibility,” said Donnelly. She cited the blowback John Allen, another retired Marine four-star general, received after his appearance at the Democratic National Convention during the 2016 election, as an example of what happens when a military officer is perceived as taking sides.
“Trump’s supporters would also likely rally around their president, even as their admiration of the military is greater relative to the general population,” Donnelly added. Her analysis is consistent with at least one study indicating that the public appears to recognize when military officers are conducting themselves in a partisan fashion.
Of course, if either Mattis or Dunford find it impossible to work under Trump, resigning in protest is always an option. Some have suggested Mattis in particular should do just that. But as Ignatius laments, this would only remove one or both of the so-called adults in the room. It would hardly address the core issue: Trump’s supposed inability to make the right decision.
And while vigilance is prudent, both Donnelly and Macgregor agree there is no reason to believe a civil-military crisis is brewing.
“There isn’t anything new about the media calling for military disobedience,” Donnelly relates. “Ignatius could’ve written the very same op-ed over a decade ago during the Bush administration. Each presidency has experienced friction with its military leadership, but it hasn’t resulted in a crisis.”
Edward Chang is a freelance defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in The National Interest, Real Clear Defense, and War Is Boring.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Mr. President, who's really in charge of our defense?

By retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, opinion contributor
November 06, 2018 - 05:00 PM EST

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Throughout the 1930s, the nation’s senior military leaders recoiled at the thought of fighting another costly war in Europe. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies toward Germany and Japan worried them. Senior military leaders, Army generals in particular, privately argued for hemispheric defense; the defense of America’s land borders and its coastal waters.

Today, President Trump confronts FDR’s strategic dilemma in reverse. Suppressing Arab and Afghan insurgents — opponents without armies, air forces, air defenses or navies — for 17 years has led the nation’s senior military leaders to order air strikes, patrols, raids and special action missions from the secure comfort of plush headquarters.

Virtually, no one in the senior ranks has the experience to prepare him or her for war with the Russian or Chinese armed forces, let alone defending Southern border with Mexico from the lawlessness and violence sweeping into America. Moreover, both tasks involve significant change. Change in any form is something senior military leader always dislike.

Retired Gen. Colin Powell — the former secretary of State who knew there were no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Iraq, but told the U.N. the WMD was there anyway — said, "I see no threat requiring this kind of deployment." And one of Powell’s successors, Retired Gen. Martin Dempsey — an architect of the Iraqi Army that melted away in front of ISIS — said the border security mission was a "wasteful deployment of over-stretched Soldiers and Marines."

Make no mistake, when retired Army four stars attack the president in the Washington Post, it’s no accident. They are speaking on behalf of their disgruntled four-star colleagues in the Pentagon.

Yet, where were these generals when the Bush administration’s deeply flawed and morally bankrupt policies produced strategic disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq? Clearly, the willingness of these and other senior military leaders to stand up to their political masters when fundamentally wrong courses of action were ordered was noticeably lacking. Whether one agreed with the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or not, the truth is that that the blame for the subsequent cruelty, corruption and incompetence during the occupation of Iraq lies as much with the generals as it does with the policymakers in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Policies determine focus, but execution — effective implementation of policy — is what creates success or failure in action. Execution is the responsibility of senior military leaders.

In his landmark book, “A Bright Shining Lie” Neil Sheehan wrote, “20 years after the end of WW II, the dominant characteristics of the senior leadership of the American Armed Forces had become professional arrogance, lack of imagination and moral and intellectual insensitivity.” According to Sheehan, were the personality traits that more than any other single factor, led otherwise intelligent officers to behave stupidly in Vietnam.

How chief executives deal with the aforementioned traits in uniform is instructive. Many end up like big-league baseball teams trying to find the right manager. Some, like LBJ and “Dubya” just work with the generals they have. Others like Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt demanded better generals and found them.

In 1899, after Spain surrendered the Philippines, President McKinley decided Americans had a Christian duty to occupy the Philippines. By 1902, McKinley was dead and Philippine resistance to American occupation had resulted in the death of at least 200,000 Filipinos and 6,000 American Soldiers. Teddy Roosevelt, the new president, was desperate to end the war.

When secret information concerning the mistreatment of the Philippine civilian population appeared in the Washington Post and in the hands of senior Senators in the Democratic Party, Teddy Roosevelt was sure that Lt. Gen. Nelson Miles, Commander of the U.S. Army was the source. Miles was violently opposed to Teddy Roosevelt’s reform plans for the U.S. Army. When he testified on the Hill against his reform plans, Miles said he would rather resign than submit to the “despotism from the White House.”

Teddy Roosevelt also knew that Miles harbored presidential ambitions, but he was less concerned with Miles’ political aspirations than with Miles’ unprofessional conduct. In a public showdown that surprised everyone in Washington, Teddy Roosevelt told Miles, “I will have no criticism of my Administration from you, or any other officer in the Army. Your conduct is worthy of censure, sir.”

Miles retired and sought the Democratic nomination for president — he lost. Congress enacted Teddy Roosevelt’s Army reforms and in 1906, he appointed a brigadier general named James Franklin Bell as the U.S. Army’s first chief of staff. The Army changed. Bell was the first officer in 45 years to lead the Army who had not fought in the Civil War.

Mr. President, the lesson of history is clear. If the senior military leaders don’t believe in the assigned border mission, don’t force them to do it. Do what Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt did: replace them with new officers who will do the job. Like Gen. Miles, the departing senior military leaders can always run for office, or look for jobs with the next Democratic administration.

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Douglas Macgregor, Ph.D., was a combat veteran and the author of five books. His latest is Margin of Victory.

Why were active-duty forces picked over Guard to defend the border? Capabilities, Pentagon says

By: Tara Copp
Soldiers from the 97th Military Police Brigade, and 41st Engineering Company, Fort Riley, Kan., work alongside U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Nov. 2, 2018, at the Hidalgo, Texas, port of entry, applying 300 meters of concertina wire along the Mexico border in support of Operation Faithful Patriot. (Senor Airman Alexandra Minor/Air Force)

The Pentagon faced questions Monday as to why it selected thousands of active-duty forces to deploy to the border instead of sending additional National Guard.

In responses to reporters, Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning said when the Department of Homeland Security made the request for military support, it specifically sought forces to assist with planning; engineering support to construct barriers; aviation support to transport Customs and Border Patrol personnel; medical teams; command and control capabilities and the ability to construct temporary housing for Customs and Border Patrol personnel.

Those are active-duty capabilities; but they are also the purview of the National Guard. Approximately 4,800 troops have been deployed with 5,200 expected to be in place by the end of the day.

Of those 4,800, 2,600 are in Texas and 1,100 each are in Arizona and California. Between 750 to 1,000 of those forces are Marines from Camp Pendleton. Several Pendleton units are being combined to form an engineering Marine Air Ground Task Force that will stay in California, a DoD official said on the condition of anonymity.

Manning initially said the administration specified the use of active-duty forces, but the press office quickly clarified that DHS had only requested the capabilities, and DoD made the decision to use Title 10 forces over the Guard.

“We determined that the units that were selected to fulfill this mission were the right units with the right capabilities that we could rapidly deploy in position in order to assist DHS,” Manning said.

If National Guard forces had been selected, state governors would have had to approve their deployment. Earlier this year when Trump requested military support at the border, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized that up to 4,000 personnel could fulfill the request. Governors sent only about 2,100 forces total, and several governors refused.

 A U.S. airmen of 355 Civil Engineer Squadron secure the frame of a tent at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., Nov. 4, 2018. Various military branches are deployed as support to local Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in support of Operation Faithful Patriot. (Spc. Keion Jackson/Army)

The Pentagon still could not provide any data on the costs of the deployment but said that DoD’s comptroller was working on those figures.

Manning also emphasized that U.S. forces will not be patrolling the border, will not be interacting with migrants crossing the border, and the only forces who are armed will be military police or other security forces — who are there to provide force protection for their fellow soldiers, not protect CBP as they patrol. Military police or security forces will also secure entry points of DoD facilities along the border.

“There is no plan for DOD personnel to interact with migrants or protesters,” Manning said. “We are absolutely in support of [Customs and Border Patrol].”

Despite the stand-off role, troops are deploying with body armor.

“They are in the uniform that the commander determined was appropriate for that mission,” Manning said.

Monday, November 5, 2018

President Trump's Russian conundrum

By Douglas Macgregor - - Sunday, November 4, 2018


President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), signed in 1987 by President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, seems to have surprised Russia President Vladimir Putin. However, it should not have come as a shock.

Moscow began violating the INF Treaty at least 10 years ago. Much like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the INF was on life support during most of President Obama’s term in office. President Trump simply pulled the plug.

On the other hand, Mr. Putin’s response to Mr. Trump’s actions included a statement that deserves more attention than it has received: Russia would only employ its nuclear weapons in response to an incoming missile attack. In other words, like China, Mr. Putin is declaring a “No First Use” Doctrine for Russian nuclear weapons.

To the casual Western observer, Mr. Putin’s posture is confusing. In one breath, Moscow threatens Washington’s European allies with grave consequences if they host a new class of U.S. nuclear weapons designed to counter Russia’s capabilities, and in the next breath Mr. Putin denies that Moscow will ever be the first to use a nuclear weapon. What’s going on?

The answer is complex. Unfortunately, Washington’s current relations with Moscow are weighed down by the burden of history.

During the 1930s and World War II, FDR believed that he and Stalin could solve any problem on a “man-to-man” basis. “Of one thing I am sure,” said FDR, “Stalin is not an imperialist.” Stalin “played” FDR. Fortunately, when the war ended with half of Europe and Asia under Stalin’s boot, George Kennan’s long-standing warnings about the Soviet threat finally found a receptive audience in President Truman.

Mr. Truman accepted Mr. Kennan’s argument that Moscow’s power depended on a siege mentality inside Russian society that necessitated an enemy perpetually “lowering beyond the walls.” But Stalin’s ostensible support for North Korea’s attack on South Korea set destructive forces in motion that would not expire until 1989.

With this point in mind, Steven Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian Studies at Princeton University, sought to dismantle the Cold War perception of contemporary Russia by “humanizing” Russia’s president. Mr. Cohen said, “Putin is not the ever-‘aggressive Kremlin autocrat’ so often portrayed in U.S. mainstream media. A moderate by nature (in the Russian context), he governs by balancing powerful conflicting groups and interests.”

Mr. Cohen has a point. Mr. Putin is not the mass murderer Joseph Stalin was and Russia is no longer a major superpower. In 2016, the size of the Russian economy was roughly 85 percent that of the South Korean economy. Put another way, 49 million Koreans in the Republic of Korea (ROK) dramatically out-performed 140 million Russians.

Thanks to this year’s modest rise in oil and gas prices, Russia’s single commodity economy looks a bit more robust, but in terms of per capita GDP, Russia still comes in at 68th in the world — whereas the ROK is roughly 22nd. However, today’s Japanese economy is actually more than three times the size of the ROK’s economy. Given Russia’s difficult history with Japan, Japan’s economic superpower status must raise new fears in Moscow.

Following a successful October meeting between President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it was announced that China’s bilateral relationship with Japan is back on the right track and showing positive momentum. In a joint press conference held after the talks, Mr. Abe said, “We confirmed the principle of being cooperative partners and not becoming threats to each other.” This must trouble Moscow.

The shared fear of mutually assured destruction induces Moscow to refrain from the use of nuclear weapons, but this limitation does not equate to fundamental change in Moscow’s view of itself and the surrounding world.

Though Washington dislikes and genuinely fears the concentration of Russian political, economic and military power, Washington has no choice but to deal with Moscow’s bipolar tendencies; to seek acceptance one day, then, engage in risky international behavior on the next. Keep in mind, Mr. Putin says he is ready for an improvement in U.S.-Russian ties “at any moment.”

Yet, relations with Russia now are no more about Mr. Trump’s personal rapport with Mr. Putin than were FDR’s relations with Stalin. International relations are about interests. To paraphrase George Kennan, when Mr. Trump meets with Mr. Putin in Paris on Nov. 11, his approach must be that of a long-term, patient — but firm — commitment to identify and build on the interests that Washington and Moscow share, but to scrupulously avoid the trap that ensnared FDR.

• Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is a decorated combat veteran and the author of five books. His latest is “Margin of Victory” (Naval Institute Press, 2016).