Jon DiCicco

Associate Professor of Political Science & International Relations at Middle Tennessee State University

Greetings! I'm Jonathan DiCicco (Ph.D., Rutgers University, 2006), a professional international relations scholar and educator. As of August 2018, I’m an associate professor of Political Science and International Relations at Middle Tennessee State University.

This website serves as my home base on the Internet and is designed to be a gateway for me and my students as we seek to understand international relations, war and peace, and American foreign affairs.

Reach me on email: Jon.DiCicco [at] mtsu [dot] edu

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White House's escalation of Iran crisis set to trump Congressional opposition

The following opinion piece appears in edited form in The Tennessean and was reprinted in USA TODAY, Yahoo! News, The Coloradoan, The Star Press, and heraldmailmedia.com. The original version is posted here for full context and access to the embedded links to online sources. It was written on 8 May 2019.

The escalating confrontation with Iran provides President Trump and hawkish members of his administration a convenient one-two punch: an international crisis in the Persian Gulf that distracts from a constitutional crisis inside the Beltway, and a means of bypassing the Senate’s meager attempts to rein in the Trump administration’s assertion of executive war powers.

First, to the dueling crises. Congress and the president appear to be locked in a slow-motion showdown over Democratic legislators’ demands for documents. Together with the findings of the Mueller report, the subpoena showdown is turning up the heat on President Trump. In moments like these, an international crisis can do much to divert the attention of the media and the public.

Enter the international crisis with Iran. Iran is a legitimate threat to U.S. interests; there is no doubt of that. But Iran’s war-making capabilities pose no immediate threat to the American homeland. Regional in its reach, Iran has worked to frustrate U.S. ambitions in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, and it has supported dangerous militia groups like Hezbollah.

Now that “credible” (if mysterious) intelligence of Iranian plans to attack U.S. forces has come to light, the Trump administration has responded with a demonstration of military muscle. The carrier strike group and bomber task force sent to the Gulf region “send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests… will be met with unrelenting force,” according to national security advisor John Bolton.

Bolton added that the U.S. is “fully prepared to respond to any attack” but “is not seeking war with the Iranian regime.” Skeptics may be forgiven for thinking that the opposite is true and that the U.S. has been spoiling for a fight with Iran for months.

For their part, Congressional opponents of expansive executive war powers have suspected as much since September 2018, when they introduced a bill seeking to block federal funding of war against Iran without Congress’ express approval.

At that time, the bill was in direct response to some tough talk from White House officials about Iran’s connection to Shia militia bombings in Baghdad and Basra. Since then, Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have taken steps that appear to pave the way to armed conflict with Iran. These steps include: Bolton’s widely reported September 2018 request to the Pentagon for military strike options against Iran; the State Department’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization; Pompeo’s assertion (against expert assessments) that Iran is connected to al Qaeda; and the related suggestion that a presidential decision for military action against Iran may be covered under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), the nearly 18-year-old blank check issued by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Eager to regain some semblance of control over foreign wars, Senators last month reintroduced the stalled “Prevention of Unconstitutional War with Iran Act,” and the House is in tow. Congress’ intended purpose is clear: to “limit the use of funds for kinetic military operations in or against Iran.

But the revivified bill has little bite. Its prohibitions are rendered toothless by three exceptions: an imminent threat to the U.S., a need to rescue endangered U.S. personnel, or “a sudden attack on the U.S., its territories or possessions, or its Armed Forces.”

With the Wall Street Journal reporting that “new U.S. intelligence showed that Iran drew up plans to target U.S. forces in Iraq and possibly Syria, … [and] may be seeking to target U.S. forces in Kuwait,” it’s no wonder that the administration would be proactive in deploying additional forces to the Gulf as a deterrent.

But it’s also significant that the new intelligence pinpoints “U.S. forces” in the Gulf region as the intended targets of Iran or its proxies. Should the White House use military force against Iran, the Journal’s description of the intelligence inoculates the Trump administration against public criticism. After all, what self-respecting American would speak out against protecting U.S. troops abroad?

Even more important, the new intelligence cited by the administration conveniently sidesteps the Senate’s attempt to corral the commander-in-chief. The language is unmistakable, and fits cleanly within the exceptions noted in the Senate bill. If the White House wants war with Iran – to protect our troops, to divert attention, or both – Congress poses little more than a speed bump, and administration officials have made the moves necessary to roll right over it.

The views expressed are those of the author and the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other individuals at Middle Tennessee State University. All rights reserved.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and draw down in Afghanistan: Thoughts about timing

UPDATE: A shortened and improved version of this thought piece was published in early January 2019 as a featured op-ed in The Tennessean; I leave this older version here to preserve the original links to supporting documents in popular media.

The fallout from President Trump’s orders to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria and to draw down troop levels in Afghanistan has been fast and furious. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned his post, as did Brett McGurk, special envoy to the coalition combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) and other senators issued public statements taking the president’s judgment to task, and introduced a resolution “expressing the sense of the Senate” that “limited military activities” should be maintained in Syria.  National security experts on television and the internet are wringing their hands and expressing concern about the drawdown’s effects on the U.S.’s reputation for resolve and its ability to protect against future terrorist attacks.  But no one who has paid attention to Mr. Trump’s statements and Tweets can claim to be surprised by the president’s intention to withdraw troops. When it comes to the decision to draw down, the relevant question is not “why?”, but “why now?”

Let’s begin with the simple but problematic claim of “mission accomplished.”  In a Tweet, the president claimed victory in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Such a declaration may be premature, but the Islamic State has been pushed out of much of the territory it once controlled. One could argue that the roughly 2,000 US troops ordered to withdraw from Syria are not needed to complete the job.  The same cannot be said for Afghanistan, where the removal of 7,000 US troops would cut the US military presence in half — at the expense of those troops who advise and assist official Afghan armed forces.  Experts worry that leaving Afghan forces to fend for themselves will open the door to gains by the Taliban – the same Islamic fundamentalist group that US forces ousted from power in 2001, and that has proved remarkably resilient in the ensuing 17 years. One may define “victory” in a variety of ways, but in no way can victory over the Taliban be claimed. And, in line with critics in Congress, even the president’s own cabinet officials have indicated that victory in Syria is not yet within grasp.

So if victory is not yet assured, why withdraw troops now? Some analysts have argued that the president has caved to pressure from foreign leaders, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and President Vladimir Putin of Russia. There may be a kernel of truth to this interpretation.  Media reports have linked the decision to a Trump-Erdogan phone call on December 14, and the announcement of the decision met with a public statement of approval from Putin.  But it seems unlikely that the president would be swayed by a bit of cajoling from Erdoğan, who reportedly reminded Trump “that [Trump] had repeatedly said the only reason for U.S. troops to be in Syria was to defeat the Islamic State and that the group had been 99 percent defeated,” and insisted that “the Turks could deal with the remaining IS militants.”

Mr. Trump’s receptivity to Erdogan’s arguments flew in the face of the advice the US president had received from his national security team and, consequently, shocked observers.  But the president’s departure from establishment advice on December 14 might be partially explained by the events of the previous day. On December 13, the U.S. Senate acted under the authority it assigned to itself in 1973 with the War Powers Resolution by demanding an end to U.S. military involvement in Yemen.  Media reports framed the bipartisan 56-41 vote to end support for Saudi Arabia’s military intervention as a “rebuke” of President Trump.

Trump’s willingness to buck establishment wisdom on Syria might well have been prompted by the Senate’s unprecedented vote to clip his wings with regard to the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen.  Armchair psychologists will be tempted to blame a bruised presidential ego and an impetuous response to being publicly rebuked.  But to reduce this story to individual motives misses the forest for a single tree.  Congress and the presidency have long been understood to be in a struggle for power over foreign and military affairs.  In crude institutional terms, the Senate shoved the president hard on December 13, and on December 14, the president shoved back.

Moreover, the president might have reasoned that an emboldened Congress would seek to insinuate itself in deployment decisions, especially after Democrats take control of the House of Representatives in January 2019.  Seen in this light, we can read President Trump’s decision not only as retaliation against the legislative branch and a sort of “declaration of independence” from the establishment, but also as a preemptive move intended to steal the thunder of congressional Democrats who might be inclined to use the War Powers Resolution to further encroach on executive authority.

A resurgent Russia and a tough-talking Turkey might get the credit (or blame) for persuading President Trump to overrule his advisors by ordering troop removals.  But a resurgent Congress and tough times in Beltway politics might deserve a share of the credit as well. Distinguished political scientist Edward S. Corwin wrote that the Constitution was “an invitation to struggle” between the president and Congress “for the privilege of directing American foreign policy.” Coming just hours after the Senate voted to end U.S. military involvement in Yemen – and just weeks before an increasingly restive Congress sees a Democratic majority assume power in the lower house – Mr. Trump’s otherwise-puzzling decision may be understood as part of that historic, institutional struggle.

The views expressed are those of the author and the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other individuals at Middle Tennessee State University. All rights reserved.

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