Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Pact: A Short Story

     [History puts it beyond serious dispute that those who seek power value power above all other things. Many such cannot be satisfied by a fixed amount of power; they demand an ever-increasing sop to their world-bestriding images of themselves, no matter at whose expense it must come. Since World War II, it’s fallen to the United States to deal with such aspirants to empire...and we haven’t always done as well at it as we might.]

* * *

    The MiG-31 had launched from Klyuchi Air Base on the Kamchatka peninsula. It was equipped with range-extender tanks and two visible air-to-ground missiles. Even had it not been marked as a Russian warplane, its silhouette and radar signature would have made it plain to any interested observer.

    The observers along the Distant Early Warning line were more than merely interested. As the MiG approached the American reflex-defense zone, Elmendorf Air Base scrambled a pair of F-15E Eagles to meet it. Their orders were to warn it away from an airspace in which it was unwelcome.

    The pilot of the MiG had other ideas.

    As it approached the twelve-mile border at which the United States’ sovereignty begins, the MiG turned sharply to starboard. According to Lieutenant Colonel Donald MacDougall, the pilot of the trailing Eagle, the Russian flew tauntingly right along the border, as closely as a military-grade GPS might allow.

    The tactic is called “trailing your coat.” It’s not a military maneuver per se, but rather a statement of dominance over an international adversary. In its purest form, it involves sending an armed platform–a warship or warplane—into and through the periphery of that adversary, in demonstration of indifference to that adversary’s sovereignty and contempt for its ability to mete out punishment.

    An aggressive government will often use such a maneuver as a precursor to demands upon the adversary: for example, for trading privileges, for port accommodations, or for support in international fora. The aggressor power, having exhibited its superiority, might well threaten further and deeper incursions should its “requests” be denied. As such incidents have led to wars in several cases, it’s a tactic that’s seldom overlooked and unsafe to ignore.

    Undaunted, Colonel Tadeusz Warshovski, piloting the lead Eagle, decided to “show the Russian so-and-so a thing or two.” The consequences of his decision reinforced a pilots’ maxim of long standing: There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.

    Colonel Warshovski zipped up to the invisible line in the sky, matched courses with the MiG, rolled his Eagle ninety degrees to port and held it there, showing his underside and armaments to the Russian in a counting-coup gesture possible only for an airman of the first quality. Warshovski’s ability to hold his Eagle in that posture while maintaining altitude, course, and speed was among the best-known marks of his proficiency. It was enough to cause the Russian pilot, a bare hundred feet away, to gawk in grudging admiration.

    Warshovski’s Eagle was still “riding its wing,” and the pilot of the MiG was still staring, when a pocket of turbulence seized the Russian fighter and slammed it into Warshovski’s.

    Owing to the planes’ munitions and the large quantities of unexpended fuel, the conflagration from the collision was visible for many miles. Shards from both aircraft were later found as far away as the Alaskan coast. There were no survivors.

    Such incidents, including the loss of life, were not unprecedented. Russian and American war platforms had collided several times before, though not in so dramatic a fashion. On previous occasions, the sequel had been diplomatic: cosmetically angry, though always with the fixed intention of averting war among all parties. But such a thing had never before happened on Inauguration Day.

* * *

    Stephen Graham Sumner, inaugurated the forty-seventh president of the United States only hours before, was greeted at the door to the Oval Office by the White House press secretary, the majority of his Cabinet secretaries, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. Their faces were uniformly tight with dismay.

    Sumner displayed no surprise. He waved the group inside, waited until all had found some seat or place to stand, and propped himself against the antique desk that had first graced the Oval Office during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.

    “I’d thought I would have some time to get acquainted with the place.” He grinned. “From the looks of you gentlemen, that’s not going to be the case.”

    “Mr. President,” said General Leslie Maclaurin, Army Chief of Staff and JCS Chairman, “there’s been an incident.”

    Sumner’s eyebrows went up. “Details, General?”

    “A Russian MiG-31 was trailing its coat along the twelve-mile line when it collided with an Eagle out of Elmendorf. There were no survivors.”

    “Shit.” Secretary of State Ernest Tyszczenko’s face had turned a dark red. “On Inauguration Day? This wasn’t—”

    “Of course not, Ernie,” Sumner said. “Coleman prepared the ground for this months ago. Frankly, I should have expected something of the sort.” He drew himself up, crossed his arms over his chest, and scanned the gathering. “Your assessments, gentlemen?”

    “What’s there to say, Steve?” Secretary of Defense Isaac Guillory’s casual use of Sumner’s name drew starts and stares from the others. “It’s what the Russians do. They’re perfectly confident nothing will come of it...from us, at any rate.”

    “Then why, Isaac?”

    Guillory started to reply, but Tyszczenko leaped ahead of him.

    “It’s an intimidation play, Mr. President. Ragozin has promised his insiders the recreation of the Warsaw Pact, albeit not in name. The former satellites aren’t interested, and NATO has promised to react to any overt moves toward them, so he’s trying to weaken their resolve by a display of dominance over us.” Tyszczenko shook his head. “Though I doubt he intended it to cost lives.”

    “It happened whether he intended it or not,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Louis Laperrier growled. “Warshovski was one of my best. A thirty-year man with a spotless record and a long string of walks-on-water evals.”

    “No doubt,” Guillory said with a humorless smirk, “Ragozin will say the same about the MiG pilot. So what now?”

    “We do have a couple of things Ragozin doesn’t have, Mr. President,” General Laperrier said.

    “And those are?” Sumner said.

    Laperrier smiled coldly. “Eyewitnesses and film.”

* * *

    As the video ran to its anticipated conclusion, Sumner rose from his seat and turned to the Russian ambassador.

    “Well, Ambassador, are you satisfied?”

    Maxim Lichnowsky frowned. “Entirely so, Mr. President. Your pilot performed a most hazardous stunt at extreme proximity to our aircraft, which was entirely within its rights—”

    “If you want this conversation to remain pleasant, Ambassador,” Sumner said, “you will refrain from using the word ‘rights’ when referring to the deliberately provocative maneuver of your aircraft.” His expression was unreadable. “And if we’re going to be precise in these matters, the collision occurred within America’s twelve-mile air and sea zone of jurisdiction. By seventy-eight feet.”

    “Nevertheless,” Lichnowsky pressed, “had it not been for your pilot’s—”

    “Ambassador Lichnowsky,” Sumner growled, “you’re treading on extremely dangerous ground.”

    Lichnowsky’s eyebrows rose. He fell silent.

    “The MiG wasn’t on a joyride, was it?” Sumner said. “I’d find it hard to credit, at any rate.” He circled his desk, went to the fireplace, and gazed up at the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington that had hung there for two centuries and more. “The United States doesn’t send its pilots to taunt other nations by trailing our coat along their borders. They do their proficiency flying entirely within our borders. At all other times, they’re under orders. Specific orders.”

    “A wise policy, Mr. President,” Lichnowsky allowed. He smiled nastily. “It averts the possibility of angering a stronger, more resolute power and triggering a reprisal.”

    Sumner stared at the Russian. His face lost its inscrutability as it lit with delight. He gestured to Lichnowsky to rise. The Russian ambassador did so and stood uncertainly in the middle of the Oval Office.

    “Diplomacy,” Sumner said, “has always struck me as akin to fencing.” He reached for the foil that hung below the portrait and dismounted it from its hangers. “Do you fence, Ambassador?”

    Lichnowsky’s smile darkened. “I do not, though I am familiar with the sport.”

    Sumner flexed the foil, testing its springiness, and struck a garde position. “A great deal of what a fencer must master is feints and misdirection.” He slowly moved the foil through the standard octave. “How to persuade the opponent to look elsewhere, really.” He returned to garde, moved quickly to a mid-line attack stance, and advanced toward Lichnowsky with a series of showy cuts. The Russian, seeing that the foil’s tip was unblunted, raised his hands defensively. His expression morphed toward alarm.

    “The United States has seldom played the diplomacy game as well as your nation, Ambassador.” Sumner had brought the tip of his foil within inches of the knot in Lichnowsky’s tie. He forced the Russian steadily back, oscillating the tip of the foil delicately back and forth. “We have this problem, you see. We’re habitually honest with others, even when those others have displayed no penchant for honesty themselves.” He backed Lichnowsky into the wall and laid the tip of his foil against the Russian’s chest with the greatest of delicacy. “But in the usual case, once we discover that we’ve been lied to, we cease to talk. I dare say you’d rather we kept talking, wouldn’t you, Ambassador? Considering the alternatives, that is?”

    “Yes, of course,” Lichnowsky quavered.

    Sumner smiled. “I was sure you would. So please, convey my compliments to President Ragozin and tell him I expect to see him here, in this office, no more than seven days from today.” He looked away briefly in mock surprise, as if he’d suddenly remembered something of modest importance. “Oh, and please tell him that until I have the pleasure of hosting him here, the strategic forces of the United States of America will be at DEFCON Two. Would you give him those messages for me, please?”

    “Of course, Mr. President.” Sweat from Lichnowsky’s brow dripped into his eyes. He blinked frantically. “Will that be all?”

    Sumner stepped back and raised his sword in parting salute.

    “For the present, my friend. Have a safe trip home.”

* * *

    Nikolai Stepanovich Ragozin, President of Russia, had clawed his way bloodily to the top of his government over the bodies of more adversaries than anyone could remember. He had openly proclaimed a Russian Empire Reborn, a realm to humble even what the Tsars had ruled. No one expected him to react well to Sumner’s “invitation,” nor did he. He didn’t acknowledge Sumner’s summons in any way. Fearing the possible consequences, Ambassador Lichnowsky refrained from contact with the White House.

    When seven days had elapsed, a squadron of B-52s lifted off from Edwards Air Force Base. They rendezvoused with F-15E escorts from Elmendorf over the North Pacific, flew to just outside the Russian defensive perimeter around Kamchatka Peninsula, and launched sixteen cruise missiles. Those missiles were state of the art: smarter and stealthier than any of their predecessor generations. They flew barely above sea level, completely undetected, to within a mile of Klyuchi Air Base before initiating their terminal pop-up maneuver.

    Sixteen warheads detonated at points evenly spaced along Klyuchi’s military-grade runways. The quarter ton of Octol each contained dug a broad, wide crater in the concrete, throwing chips and dust for two hundred feet in all directions. When the air had cleared, the bodies of the unfortunate collected, and the debris swept away, it became clear that the runways had been reduced to uselessness. Given the difficulties involved in getting heavy equipment and supplies to Kamchatka overland, it would be many months before another plane took off from or landed at that field.

* * *

    “Mr. President.”

    Sumner pressed the TALK key on his intercom pad. “Yes, Sally?”

    “President Ragozin of Russia is on line one. He’s very agitated and has demanded to speak with you at once.”

    Sumner nodded. “I see. Sally, I’m about to ask you to do something difficult.”

    “Anything, Mr. President.”

    “Make that two things.” Sumner grinned in anticipation. “First, I’d like you to call me Steve. I like to be on a first-name basis with the people around me. It might help to keep me from getting a swelled head. Besides, I call you by your first name, don’t I?”

    “Mr. President, that’s...going to be difficult.”

    “Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. But perhaps this next part will be a little easier.” Sumner took a deep breath. “Please tell President Ragozin that I’m unwilling to speak with him other than face to face here in my office. Then hang up without waiting for a reply.”

    “Mr. Pres...Steve? Are you sure about that?”

    “Perfectly, dear.”

    “As you wish, Mr....Steve.”

    Sumner sat back and chuckled to himself.

* * *

    It took the best efforts of the best men on the Presidential Detail to keep the four huge thugs accompanying the Russian president from forcing their way into the Oval Office. Nevertheless, they succeeded, albeit with much clamor and many concussive thuds of burly Russian bodies upon the anteroom carpet. When the action was over, Nikolai Stepanovich Ragozin, who had inspired mortal terror in his enemies for thirty years, stood alone before a semicircle of edgy Secret Servicemen, all of whose guns were pointed directly at his head. His retinue was uniformly down for the count.

    Senior Agent Ryan McFarlane, commander of the Detail, scanned his men, holstered his weapon and stepped forward to address the Russian. “Mr. President, the invitation was for you alone.”

    Ragozin gaped. His mouth moved, but no sound issued forth.

    The door to the Oval Office opened and Sumner stepped forth. His gaze landed immediately on Ragozin, and his face lit with pleasure.

    “Niki! At last!” He extended a hand toward the Russian, who clasped it dumbly. “You can’t imagine how much I’ve looked forward to this moment. Come,” he said, ushering Ragozin inside, “let me fix you a drink. Vodka, I assume?”

* * *

    “A long time since someone’s pointed a gun at you, eh, Niki?” Sumner set the vodka over ice before the Russian president with a flourish and seated himself on the facing sofa. “Exhilarating, eh what?”

    “My men—” Ragozin faltered.

    “They’re alive,” Sumner interjected. “Which is more than I can say for Colonel Tadeusz Warshovski and Major Franklin Oporto. Who gave the order, Niki? Was it one of your half-bright lieutenants, or did it come directly from you?”

    Ragozin merely stared at him.

    “Cat got your tongue, Niki?”

    Sumner’s repeated use of the demeaning diminutive stirred something in the Russian. He straightened and firmed visibly.

    “You killed one of my best pilots,” Ragozin growled. “You threatened my ambassador with a sword. You summoned me to this room as if I were a peasant to kneel before you.” He rose and glowered down at Sumner. “Your missiles killed twenty-three Russian workers and did billions of rubles of damage to a Russian military base. And now you hold me here like a hostage to your whims!”

    “You must understand something, Niki.” Sumner knocked back his Scotch in a single draught and set down his glass. “Ah! That hit the spot. You see, I’m not Walter Coleman. I’m not Andrew Purcell. I’m not any of their predecessors, either. In fact, I plan to make Reagan look like a pansy, at least when it comes to dealing with morons like you.” He rose from his seat and stared the Russian in the eyes. “Sit down.”

    “How dare you—”

    “I said sit down.” Sumner took two steps forward, placed a hand on the incredulous Russian’s chest, and shoved. Ragozin fell backward heavily onto the sofa, eyes wide in astonished outrage.

    “You’ll get it before you leave here, I promise you,” Sumner’s eyes had gone hard. “You’re not my equal. You’re not my partner in negotiations over matters of mutual interest. You’re a bully who seeks to prop up his regime with the riches of others. Your country is little better than a Third World satrapy. And I am not going to follow in my predecessor’s footsteps in trying to placate you. Tell me, Niki, how well do you know the history of the Soviet Union?”

    “I am...familiar with it,” Ragozin murmured.

    “Then perhaps you already know the story I’m about to tell you,” Sumner said. He resumed his seat. “It comes from the Seventies, when things were breaking loose in the Middle East and your fatherland was approaching a transition of its own.

    “It seems that, back then, Islamic terrorists preferred to ransom infidel captives rather than kill them. They took quite a number of such captives, and for a while they received a great deal of money for them. One group that had made a pile kidnapping and ransoming Westerners decided to try the game on a Soviet agent. But the KGB didn’t respond the way their Western victims’ governments had. Instead it performed a counter-kidnapping of one of the group’s members, and returned him to his confreres in pieces, in a plastic bag. There was a note on the bag, in Russian and Arabic. It said, ‘This is the way we play.’ The kidnapped Soviet agent was back with his comrades within twenty-four hours, alive and whole. No Soviet agent was molested ever again.

    “I was told that story by a marvelous campaign advisor, a young woman who knew far more about power politics than I, and probably still does. She was trying to make a point to me about my personal safety, but it was clear that there was more than one lesson to be drawn from the tale.

    “We learned from your predecessors, Niki. Unpleasant lessons, but ones we needed to absorb if we were to deal successfully with you and others like you. Some of my predecessors failed to internalize those lessons. We needed to drive them so deeply into our institutional psyche that we would act on them without hesitation, as I did the day before yesterday.

    “You and yours respect only power, Niki. Don’t bother to deny it; it’s plain from your history. You react to concessions and accommodation by pressing for more. When my nation has treated yours like honorable bargaining partners, we’ve always come away regretting it. You’ve shown no regard for the truth. You’ve taken advantage of every little chink in every deal, every word that could be interpreted to your advantage. The spirit of an agreement has never meant anything to you, only the most you could possibly squeeze out of it. You’ve cheated outright when you thought you could get away with it, and much of the time you were right.

    “I can’t bring my airmen back to life, but I can prevent a recurrence. I can teach you the lesson the KGB taught those Muslim kidnappers. Your provocations toward the United States are going to end here and now. Any further ones will be repaid tenfold, upon Russian soil, Russian assets, and the Russian people, just like the one that brought you here.

    “The forces of the United States have been at DEFCON 2 for nine consecutive days, Niki. That’s a wearying posture to hold, but I know the quality of those forces, and they’ve met my nation's needs superbly. I could give a single order and those forces would reduce Russia’s strategic force to radioactive ash, make Russia the globally irrelevant Third World country it deserves to be—and believe me, I’d very much like to give that order. So don’t test me again.

    “But I called you here for more than one reason, Niki. One was to demonstrate to you just how feeble your pretensions to empire really are. Another was to put you on notice that to the United States, you are no longer the potentate of a ‘great power’ whose whims and rages must be included in our decision making, but an enemy to be closely watched until the day your people tire of you and depose you in favor of some new tyrant. But the third reason is the most important one. We’re going to sign an agreement together.”

    “What sort of agreement?” Ragozin murmured.

    “A treaty,” Sumner said. He went to his desk and picked up a pair of stapled pages. “A treaty that makes Russia a co-guarantor of the political independence of all the nations of Eastern Europe.” He handed the papers to the Russian.

    Ragozin’s gaze fell on the pages. He read the first few lines of the top sheet, then looked away. “Why should I sign such a thing?”

    Sumner shrugged. “For one thing, you’d get to leave here when and as you choose, and with your little retinue intact. For another, I hear your people really like bread. And I’m told that they make most of it with flour milled from American wheat. You wouldn’t want them to lose access to that wheat, would you? Besides,” he said through a grin, “I have lots of cruise missiles.”

* * *

    “Did you mean it?” Adrienne Sumner said.

    “Every word. Though I must admit, the Scotch helped.” Sumner forked up the last of his broccoli in cheese sauce and savored it. “What on Earth was Bush the Elder ranting about? Broccoli is one of the few vegetables with real flavor.”

    His wife chuckled. “Stop trying to change the subject, Mr. President.”

    Sumner groaned. “Not you too, Brutus.”

    “Bruta.” Adrienne rose and started to gather up the dishes. A Navy steward appeared out of nowhere, swooped down on her, relieved her of the dishes, and vanished to whence he had come. She chuckled again and reseated herself.

    “It’s going to take me a while to get used to that.”

    “What, ten days hasn’t been enough?” Sumner grinned. “Seriously, though, we won’t be here for long, and we don’t get to keep the stewards.”

    “I know. But Steve...” Adrienne’s expression was troubled. “Didn’t you think you might be taking a big chance?”

    He started to reply, checked himself. There was a long moment of silence.

    “I suppose I tried not to think about the downside,” he said at last. “But the previous three administrations did a lot of damage to America’s international stature, and I knew that had to be set right. Ragozin made a perfect demonstrator. He’s a bully through and through. Handing him his head was the best imaginable way to tell the world that we’re not taking any more crap—from anybody.

    He stood and surveyed the little room in which they took their meals. Like most of the rooms in the White House, it was smaller than a room of the same function in a private home. Yet it was both beautiful and calming, appointed tastefully yet without opulence, a perfect place to dine and to begin the process of decompression from a president’s working day.

    They all had the same resources with which to face down thugs like Ragozin. Why didn’t they use them?

    “This is a tough job, sweetie. But refusing to use all my tools and weapons would only make it tougher. Ragozin thought I’d be another Coleman, or maybe another Purcell. A cream puff he could chew up and spit out at his pleasure. I had to prove him wrong, so completely that he’d never even fantasize about crossing me again.” He cringed briefly. “We simply can’t afford for the wolves of the world to look at us and think ‘lunch.’ So I risked a global war...but had it come to that, my finger was already on the button. Ragozin was my prisoner, for as long as I cared to keep him that way.”

    He thrust his hands into his pockets and gazed somberly at his wife.

    “Besides, didn’t we have an agreement of our own? That if I was to take this job, I’d never back down, never compromise on what I believe is right? Don’t you believe that was on my mind at the time, along with all the other stuff?”

    Adrienne Sumner rose from the table, went to her husband, and folded his hands in hers.

    “I do, but...”

    “I know, sweetie. I was a little scared, myself. But a promise is a promise.” He smiled down at her. “I know it’s early, but would you like to make love?”

    She nodded.



Col. B. Bunny said...

Excellent. Most entertaining.

furball said...

As I've said before, Sumner's got my vote.

Flyover Pilgrim said...

I wonder if there is a Sumner in the wings...