David Petraeus on Syria, Attacking Iran, and the Threat From ISIS

ASPEN, Colo.—Retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus pioneered America’s approach to counterinsurgency, led the surge in Iraq, served as director of the CIA for a year, and was sentenced to two years probation for leaking classified information to his mistress. On Wednesday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, he was interviewed by my colleague, Jeffrey Goldberg, about subjects including efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program; the civil war in Syria; ISIS and the threat it poses to the United States; and the Iraq War.

Here are several noteworthy moments from their conversation, slightly condensed:

The Risks of Attacking Iran

Jeffrey Goldberg: So you believe that, under certain circumstances, President Obama would still use military force against Iran?

David Petraeus: I think he would, actually. I know we’ve had red lines that didn’t turn out to be red lines. … I think this is a different issue, and I clearly recognize how the administration has sought to show that this is very, very different from other sort of off-the-cuff remarks.

Goldberg: How did the Obama administration stop Israel from attacking Iran? And do you think that if this deal does go south, that Israel would be back in the picture?

Petraeus: I don’t, actually. I think Israel is very cognizant of its limitations. … The Israelis do not have anything that can crack this deeply buried enrichment site … and if you cannot do that, you’re not going to set the program back very much. So is it truly worth it, then?

So that’s a huge limitation. It’s also publicly known that we have a 30,000-pound projectile that no one else has, that no one else can even carry. The Massive Ordinance Penetrator was under design for almost six years. … If necessary, we can take out all these facilities and set them back a few years, depending on your assumptions.

But that’s another roll of the iron dice, as Bismarck used to say, and you never know when those dice are rolled what the outcome is going to be. You don’t know what risks could materialize for those who are in harm’s way.

You don’t know what the response could be by Iran.

There’s always the chance that there will be salvos at Israel, but what if they decide to go at the Gulf states, where we have facilities in every single one.

This is not something to be taken lightly, clearly.

Is Iran or ISIS a Bigger Threat?

Goldberg: I interviewed Ben Rhodes, who is the deputy national security advisor. Later that same day I interviewed Lindsey Graham. I asked them both the same question: Who is more dangerous to American national security—the Iranians (the Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran), or ISIS. Ben Rhodes said, without hesitation, ISIS. Lindsey Graham said, without hesitation, the Iranians. Where do you fall on that?

Petraeus: Interestingly, I think Ben is right on the threat to the United States. The ISIS threat in the region, the Sunni extremist threat to our allies in Europe and elsewhere in the world, and indeed to our own homeland––I mean, we’ve seen recent examples of what appear to be orchestrated attacks, and there certainly is a trepidation of this upcoming holiday that is a bit heightened over recent years.

But, of course, Senator Graham is right … that in the region, the Shia militias, the proxies for Iran, are very dangerous. You sense, in fact, this possibility of an all-out Sunni-Shia civil war.

Goldberg: How dangerous is ISIS to the United States right now?

Petraeus: The danger to the United States right now is that they are seen as a successful organization, and nothing succeeds in the online recruiting business like success. And just the sheer proselytizing they can do on the Internet with people who are almost trying to self-recruit.

It doesn’t take much, with what you can buy at a gun show in America, if you can open up on a mall or some public place that’s full of people. So it’s a significant danger. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the sophistication of a 9/11 attack. And to our allies, we’ve seen very vividly what has been done in Europe as a result of ISIS recruiting.

The Advice on Syria That David Petraeus “Theoretically” Gave as CIA Director

Goldberg: In Syria … was it a mistake not to [help arm and support moderate anti-regime rebels] in 2011?

Petraeus: If I had advised something at that time it would have been covert action, given where I was [head of the CIA]. And so it’s not something that I can talk about now. The New York Times certainly has the memoirs of some of the other participants.  

Goldberg: So theoretically, if you had been running the CIA in 2011, you would theoretically have advocated for that?

Petraeus: Theoretically.

Goldberg: OK, just wanted to check.

Petraeus: Aggressively.

Goldberg: OK.

Petraeus: Actually, it was a little bit later. But I can neither confirm nor deny.

Goldberg: He’s not actually here at all by the way. You’re not even seeing him. It’s a hologram.

Petraeus went on to say that today, the United States needs a force in Syria that it can support, but that it is not in America’s interest to prop up the Assad regime.

Did the Iraq War Destabilize the Middle East?

Goldberg: Go back to 2003. Were we inadvertently a triggering mechanism for everything that came next?

Petraeus: I’m not so sure that we were, actually. If you think about it, these didn’t happen until a decade later. I can’t for the life of me think of the link between Iraq and why a fruit vendor self-immolates in Tunisia and cracks this seemingly solid crust that turns out to be so fragile that societal unrest touches off.

And you see this in Egypt as well.

[Former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak would meet with me when I was at Central Command. He would lean and put his hand on my knee, as if a father figure, and say, “General, don’t ever forget the Arab Street. Listen to the Arab Street.” I’d like to go to him now and say, “Mr. President, what about that Arab Street, what’s that all about?”

Is America in Decline?

Goldberg: There’s a feeling that this presidency is as much about underreaction as the last one was about overreaction. There’s a lot of talk about the dispensability of the United States. We can’t do everything. China is rising. We have to manage that. Are we in a period of decline? Is that sort of decline the worst thing in the world for the United States?

Petraeus: America is not in decline. When you experience firsthand these very visceral wars that we’ve been through, costly, frustrating, long in duration, setbacks, it’s understandable, I think, that the pendulum swings in the other direction. … I think ISIS brought it back. I think the beheading of an American is a big deal, the public reacted to that and so did their leadership, and we now recognize the threat that is posed.

I was in London recently and I was asked, after the American century, what? I think they expected me to say the Chinese Century, the Asian Century, or whatever. And I said, after the American Century, the North American decades. Now that’s not a single decade, and it’s not a century. But we have this extraordinary opportunity, because of the energy revolution, which has really upended global energy markets: we’re now the number one natural-gas producer, we’re the number one liquid-oil producer. … I know there is an insurmountable comparative advantage in that.  

This article was originally published at http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/david-petraeus-on-attacking-iran-syria-and-the-threat-from-isis/397541/


World War III: Neither Imminent nor Impossible

Christopher Coker, The Improbable War: China, The United States and the Logic of Great Power Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2015).   Today, war between the…


A Book Reception For “Speaking The Law: The Obama Administration’S Addresses On National Security Law”


Featured Commentary
via Lawfare

The Hoover Institution’s D.C. office and Lawfare are having a reception for our recent book, Speaking the Law: The Obama Administration’s Addresses on National Security Law (Hoover Institution Press Publication. Please join us for a drink and a discussion.


GEORGE SOROS: The US needs to befriend China or all hell is going to break loose

xi jinpingThe US needs to befriend China or else all hell is going to break loose, argues George Soros in a new article for The New York Review of Books.

“Both the US and China have a vital interest in reaching an understanding because the alternative is so unpalatable. The benefits of an eventual agreement between China and the US could be equally far-reaching,” he writes.

“The US government has little to gain and much to lose by treating the relationship with China as a zero-sum game. In other words, it has little bargaining power,” he continues. “It could, of course, obstruct China’s progress, but that would be very dangerous.”

Soros writes that if Xi Jinping’s market-oriented reforms fail, “he may foster some external conflicts to keep the country united and maintain himself in power” — which could lead to a Sino-Russo military and political alliance (whereas right now they’re mostly just cooperating financially).

“In that case, should the external conflict escalate into a military confrontation with an ally of the United States such as Japan, it is not an exaggeration to say that we would be on the threshold of a third world war,” writes Soros.

Soros adds, however, that he believes it would take at least a decade for a Sino-Russo military alliance that’s ready to take on the US to come together.

“Rivalry between the US and China is inevitable but it needs to be kept within bounds that would preclude the use of military force,” he writes.

Putin and Xi JinpingSoros acknowledges that a strategic partnership between China and the US won’t be easy and details various differences between the two countries, including:

  • The two powers have “fundamentally different” political systems. The US is founded on the principle of individual freedom, while China has a more hierarchical structure. 
  • “In recent years the US has led the world in the innovative development of social media, while China has led the world in finding means to control it,” he writes.
  • China, like Russia, considers itself a victim of America’s aspirations to world domination.
  • Conflicts with the US — and others — in the South China Sea, as well as issues over cyberwarfare and human rights.
  • “The US would like China to adopt its values but the Chinese leadership considers them subversive.”

“Fully recognizing these difficulties, the US government should nevertheless make a bona fide attempt at forging a strategic partnership with China,” Soros writes.

“This would involve identifying areas of common interest as well as areas of rivalry. The former would invite cooperation, the latter tit-for-tat bargaining. The US needs to develop a two-pronged strategy that offers incentives for cooperation and deterrents that render tit-for-tat bargaining less attractive.”

As an note near the end, Soros adds that the US would only be justified in building a strong partnership with China’s neighbors that the growing Sino-Russo alliance “would not dare to challenge by military force,” if and only if a “bona fide” attempt at working with China fails.

“A partnership with China’s neighbors would return us to a cold war, but that would still be preferable to a third world war.”

Read George Soros’ full article over at The New York Review of Books here.

SEE ALSO: Why this 2,073-foot Chinese building could be an omen of economic doom

Join the conversation about this story »

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Millennials and U.S. Foreign Policy

Millennials’ worldviews owe a great deal to early life experiences and the foreign policy issues that dominated their childhoods. Chief among them, the Iraq War. A. Trevor Thrall comments.

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Did George W. Bush Create ISIS?

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See the rest of the story at newyorker.com

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Baltic Defense & Security After Ukraine: New Challenges, New Threats

*This event will be webcast live. To view the Live Stream during the conference, please click here.


To commemorate 25 years of Baltic independence, The Jamestown Foundation is proud to announce that, on April 30, it will organize a conference entitled, “Baltic Defense & Security After Ukraine: New Challenges, New Threats.” The event will be the first of its kind ever to be organized in the nation’s capital dedicated solely to defense and security issues pertaining to this strategically important region. Speakers will consist of some of the leading authorities on defense and security in the United States and the Baltic region: including Michael Carpenter, Special Advisor for Europe and Eurasia in the Office of the Vice President of the United States, former US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker, Jamestown Senior Fellow Vladimir Socor, long-time Russia and Eurasia expert Paul Goble, Latvian military scholar Janis Berzins, Russian military expert Stephen Blank, and several leading defense experts from the Baltic states. Issues to be discussed will include: Russian threats to Baltic security and independence, Russia’s hybrid threat to the Letgale region and Narva, as well as the military threat posed by Russian Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad to NATO member states Lithuania, Poland and Germany.


Thursday, April 30, 2015
9:00 A.M.–12:45 P.M.

The University Club of Washington, D.C.
Grand Ballroom (2nd Floor)
1135 Sixteenth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036


*To attend this free event, please visit our registration website by clicking here.

**On Twitter, please use the hashtag #JTFBaltSec








9:00 A.M.

Glen E. Howard
President, The Jamestown Foundation

*     *     *

Panel One:
The U.S. & NATO Response to Baltic Security

9:00 A.M.–10:00 A.M.

“America’s Commitment to Baltic Defense”
Michael Carpenter*
Special Advisor for Europe and Eurasia,
Office of the Vice President  of the United States

*Mr. Carpenter’s comments will be off the record.

“NATO’s Response to Baltic Security”
Kurt Volker
Executive Director, McCain Institute for International Leadership and
Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO

Glen Howard

Q & A

*     *     *

Panel Two:
Russia’s Military Threat to the  Baltic

10:00 A.M.–11:10 A.M.

“Russian Threats to Baltic Security”
Stephen Blank
Senior Fellow, The American Foreign Policy Council

“Avoiding the Old Generals’ Mistake:
NATO Must Prepare to Fight a New War Not an Old One”
Paul Goble
Blogger, Window on Eurasia

“NATO & Europe’s East After Ukraine”
Vladimir Socor
Senior Fellow, The Jamestown Foundation

Glen Howard

Q & A

*     *     *

Coffee Break
11:10 A.M.–11:30 A.M.

*     *     *
Panel Three:
Regional Perspectives on the Growing Russian Threat

11:30 A.M.–12:45 P.M.

“The Russian Threat to Latvia”
Janis Berzins
Director, Center for Security & Strategic Research,
National Defense Academy of Latvia

“Estonian Perspective on the New Security Situation”
Indrek Sirp
Defense Counselor and Representative of the Ministry of Defense,
Embassy of Estonia in Washington, DC

“The Impact of the Kaliningrad Region on Regional Security”
Liudas Zdanavicius
Lecturer, The General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania

Keith C. Smith
Distinguished Resident Fellow, Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA)

Q & A

*     *     *

12:45 P.M.





Dr. Janis Berzins

Dr. Janis Berzins is the director of the Center for Security and Strategic Research (CSSR) at the National Defense Academy of Latvia. His research interests are Russian military thought, defense economics, international economics, and economic security and development. He has written more than 60 publications and lectured in Brazil and Latvia. He has worked as researcher at the Institute of Economics of the Latvian Academy of Sciences and at the Department of Political Sciences at the University Stradins of Riga, until he joined the CSSR in 2012. He is currently developing research on Russian military thought and asymmetric warfare, and the implications of financial instability for transatlantic security.


Stephen Blank

Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. From 1989–2013 he was a Professor of Russian National Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Dr. Blank has been Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute since 1989. In 1998–2001 he was Douglas MacArthur Professor of Research at the War College.

He has published over 900 articles and monographs on Soviet/Russian, U.S., Asian, and European military and foreign policies, testified frequently before Congress on Russia, China, and Central Asia, consulted for the CIA, major think tanks and foundations, chaired major international conferences in the USA and abroad In Florence, Prague, and London, and has been a commentator on foreign affairs in the media in the United States and abroad. He has also advised major corporations on investing in Russia and is a consultant for the Gerson Lehrmann Group.

He has published or edited 15 books focusing on Russian foreign, energy, and military policies and on International Security in Eurasia. His most recent book is Russo-Chinese Energy Relations: Politics in Command, London: Global Markets Briefing, 2006. He has also published Natural Allies?: Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation, Carlisle Barracks, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, 2005.

Dr. Blank is also the author of a study of the Soviet Commissariat of Nationalities, The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin’s Commissariat of Nationalities, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994 and the co-editor of The Soviet Military and the Future, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1992.

Prior to this appointment Dr. Blank was Associate Professor for Soviet Studies at the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education of Air University at Maxwell AFB. He also held the position of 1980–86: Assistant Professor of Russian History, University of Texas, San Antonio, 1980–86, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian history, University of California, Riverside, 1979–80.

Dr. Blank’s M.A. and Ph.D. are in Russian History from the University of Chicago. His B.A is in History from the University of Pennsylvania.


Michael Carpenter

Dr. Michael Carpenter serves as the Vice President’s Special Advisor for Europe and Eurasia. Prior to his current assignment, Dr. Carpenter served as Director for Russia at the National Security Council. Previously, he spent 12 years with the Department of State, serving as Deputy Director of the Office of Russian Affairs, speechwriter for then Under Secretary of State Bill Burns, and advisor on the South Caucasus, among other assignments. Dr. Carpenter holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.A. in International Relations from Stanford University. He has twice been a Fulbright Scholar at the Polish Academy of Sciences and has received fellowships from the IREX and MacArthur Foundations for his academic work.


Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. While there, he launched the “Window on Eurasia” series. Prior to joining the faculty there in 2004, he served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He writes frequently on ethnic and religious issues and has edited five volumes on ethnicity and religion in the former Soviet space. Trained at Miami University in Ohio and the University of Chicago, he has been decorated by the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for his work in promoting Baltic independence and the withdrawal of Russian forces from those formerly occupied lands.


Indrek Sirp

Indrek Sirp is Defense Counselor and Representative of the Ministry of Defense at the Embassy of Estonia in Washington, DC. Prior to taking up this post, Mr. Sirp worked, in 2013–2014, as Project Manager for Rail Baltic at the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications overseeing a multi-billion-euro railway project connecting the Baltic countries with Central and Western Europe. However, his primary career has been with the Estonian Ministry of Defense, where he has worked since 2001. From 2001 to 2008, he served in different posts in the International Cooperation Department, a unit responsible for bilateral and regional defense cooperation. From 2010 to 2013, Mr. Sirp worked as Director of the International Cooperation Department. He was in charge of policy formulation for and implementation of bilateral and regional defense cooperation with allied and partner nations of Estonia. In his capacity as Director of the International Cooperation Department, he was also the Estonian representative to the NATO Collective Cyber Defense Center of Excellence Steering Committee in 2012–2013.

Indrek Sirp holds a B.A. in History from the University of Tartu, Estonia, and an M.A. in International History from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.
Keith C. Smith

Ambassador Keith Smith is a Distinguished Fellow in Residence at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Ambassador Smith was previously a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He retired from the U.S. Department of State in 2000, where his career focused primarily on European affairs. From 1997 to 2000, he was U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, with additional posts in Europe, including Hungary, Norway and Estonia. In addition to several other State Department assignments, he most recently served as Director of Policy for Europe and Senior Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of State regarding U.S. assistance programs in Eastern Europe. Since 2000, Smith has been a consultant to several energy companies and has lectured on Russian-European energy issues in the United States, Poland, Belgium, Norway, United Kingdom, Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Lithuania. He is the author of numerous articles on international energy issues that have appeared in over 30 newspapers around the world, including the Financial Times and International Herald Tribune. Smith’s most recent publications include “Unconventional Gas and European Security: Politics and Foreign Policy of Fracking in Europe,” “Managing the Challenge of Russian Energy Policies,” and “Lack of Transparency in Russian Energy Trade.”


Vladimir Socor

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow of the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and its flagship publication, Eurasia Daily Monitor (1995 to present), where he writes analytical articles on a daily basis. An internationally recognized expert on former Soviet-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia, he covers Russian and Western policies there, focusing on energy policies, regional security issues, secessionist conflicts, and NATO policies and programs.

Mr. Socor is a frequent speaker at U.S. and European policy conferences and think-tank institutions. He is a regular guest lecturer at the NATO Defense College and at Harvard University’s National Security Program’s Black Sea Program (Kennedy School of Government). He is also a frequent contributor to edited volumes. Mr. Socor was previously an analyst with the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Research Institute (1983–1994). He is a Romanian-born citizen of the United States based in Munich, Germany.


Kurt Volker

Kurt Volker is Executive Director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, part of Arizona State University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO in 2008–2009. Since leaving government, he has been involved with a variety of think tank and business consulting activities. He remains active as a Senior Advisor to the Atlantic Council, and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has previously served as Managing Director–International for BGR Group and Senior Advisor at McLarty Associates. Ambassador Volker is on the Board of the Wall Street Fund, and is a Trustee of the Institute for American Universities in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Ambassador Volker contributes regularly to public policy debates, with frequent appearances on BBC, Al Jazeera English, CNN, Fox News, and with articles in such publications as La Stampa, the Christian Science Monitor, Handelsblatt, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, Policy Review, the Washington Times, and Europe’s World.

Ambassador Volker was a career member of the U.S. Senior Foreign Service, with over 23 years of experience working on European policy under five U.S. Administrations. He served as Ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from July 2, 2008 until May 17, 2009—straddling the transition from the Bush to the Obama Administrations. His tenure at NATO saw Russia’s invasion of Georgia, the ramp up of military efforts in Afghanistan, the return of France to NATO’s military structure, the enlargement of NATO to 28 members, and NATO’s 60th Anniversary Summit in Strasbourg, France. From July 2005 until June 2008, Ambassador Volker served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. Working with Europe to address the common challenges faced by the transatlantic community’s democratic societies in the 21st century, he was responsible for U.S. policy on U.S.–European Union relations, NATO, the OSCE, and Washington’s numerous bilateral relationships. He oversaw strategic planning and congressional relations, and was responsible for management of roughly 78 overseas posts, 300 domestic employees, and a budget of $400 million. Ambassador Volker previously served as Acting Senior Director for European and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council (NSC). He served at the NSC for four years, where, as Director for NATO and West Europe, he oversaw preparations for the Prague (2002) and Istanbul (2004) NATO Summits. From 1999 to 2001, Ambassador Volker was Deputy Director of the Private Office of then-NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. As a State Department Legislative Fellow in the U.S. Senate from 1997 to 1998, Ambassador Volker worked on foreign policy matters for Senator John McCain. His prior Foreign Service assignments include Brussels, Budapest, London, and several positions in the U.S. Department of State.

Ambassador Volker has a B.A. from Temple University and an M.A. in International Relations from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He has studied in Sweden and France and speaks Hungarian, Swedish and French. He is married and has two daughters.


Liudas Zdanavicius

Liudas Zdanavicius is a lecturer at The General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania. He is also a researcher at the Center for Security and Strategic Studies at the National Defence Academy of Latvia. He holds a M.A. in international relations and Diplomacy from the Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science and is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation on Russian foreign policy. Liudas Zdanavicius was author and co-author of many books, scientific studies, articles and papers about Russian internal and foreign policy, defense industry, development of Kaliningrad region, security of the Baltic Sea region and other topics. His research interests focus on the national security and foreign policy of the Russian Federation and other post-Soviet countries.


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Promoting Peace and Prosperity in Honduras: A Conversation with His Excellency Juan Orlando Hernández, President of the Republic of Honduras

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