Gopal Ratnam in Foreign Policy reports that a soon-to-be-unveiled administration document will solve the enduring mystery of the president’s apparent inaction in foreign affairs.


Even Obama’s own top advisors have criticized his administration’s national security decisions. Late last month, former Defense Intelligence Agency head Mike Flynn, a retired Army three-star general, said many in the administration were “paralyzed” by the complexity of fighting the Islamic State, leading them to “accept a defensive posture, reasoning that passivity is less likely to provoke our enemies.”

In his book Worthy Fights, former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta criticized the White House after Obama stepped back from the red line he drew as a warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against using chemical weapons in that nation’s civil war.

Now it can be told:  the president’s non-action is a deliberate, active pursuit of a doctrine known as “strategic patience.” “The White House’s new national security policy, issued Friday, urges a long-term view of confronting conflict in a world awash with urgent crises. … ‘Progress won’t be quick or linear,’ National Security Advisor Susan Rice said, “but we are committed to seizing the future that lies beyond the crisis of the day, and pursuing a vision of the world as it can and should be.'”

A person who has seen the document, and described it to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, said the strategy document is meant to explain and defend Obama’s reluctance to use military might for crises that are unlikely to be solved quickly or easily. In the document, the administration summarizes its worldview as one of “strategic patience,” this person said.

Asked about the strategy, White House National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said the policy document “sets out the principles and priorities to guide the use of American power, and it affirms America’s leadership role within a rules-based international order.” National Security Advisor Susan Rice will unveil the strategy in a speech Friday at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.


Russia may be on the verge of even more expansion in Eastern Europe.  ISIS may be expanding unabated. Iran’s proxies  may have just declared themselves the new government in Yemen.  A shallow mind might perceive these as defeats.  But the critics of the administration don’t understand: it’s not the case that anti-American forces have surrounded the administration; it is the administration which is surrounding them.  “Don’t worry if we’ve been losing all night, baby.  I’ll win it back at the last throw of the dice.”

But “strategic patience” is a two-edged sword. Obama’s rivals know how to play the waiting game too. The Ophthalmologist of Damascus, having seen past Obama’s public bluster, apparently believes that if is waits long enough Obama will surrender to him. Yezid Sayigh’s article, reprinted by the Carnegie Middle East Center, argues that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is convinced that if Damascus stalls, President Obama will in desperation offer him more and more diplomatic bribes until Syria finally gets everything it wants; by stages it will work its way all around the diplomatic table until it shifts from being across the president to being seated at his right hand.

In the regime’s view, it is the U.S.-led coalition’s only viable partner in northeast Syria. The disarray of the former Free Syrian Army means it will not revive there, and the Kurdish PYD will not extend beyond its autonomous zone in al-Hasakeh. The regime is working to reinforce its standing further. Having started to rebuild ties with local clans in Deir ez-Zor last summer, it is now doing the same in al-Hasakeh, and may follow in Raqqah province next. The recent breakdown of the modus vivendi between regime and PYD forces in al-Hasakeh likely reflects a regime attempt to improve its strategic position and buttress its claim to be the only power that can secure the border area with Iraq.


Acting on this assumption, Assad has started to demand that Washington seek permission from Damascus to operate militias in Syria. And odd as it might seem, the administration is open to doing precisely that, if the correct “diplomatic framework” can be suitably contrived.  Perhaps this is what is meant by a “rules-based international order.”

The [Assad] regime apparently expects the U.S. to ultimately acquiesce in these terms for an internal settlement of the Syrian conflict. Assad signalled this expectation by stating in his Foreign Affairs interview that it is time for the U.S. to seek formal “permission” to continue the Coalition air campaign against ISIS in Syria. On the U.S. side, the change of heart towards the Moscow talks, from initial coolness to public welcome, and ongoing consultation with Russia to produce a new statement by the Organization for Prevention of Chemical Weapons regarding Syria’s remaining research and development facilities, suggest an effort to devise a new diplomatic framework jointly with Russia that would allow the U.S. a face-saving means to accommodate Assad’s survival more formally. Difficult as this might seem at present, significant progress against ISIS would enable the U.S., along with Russia, to cast a deal on Syria in different light.

The regime’s belief that, by hanging tough, it will compel the U.S. both to accept its terms and make its regional allies follow suit is a high-risk gamble. The regime will survive, but in a Syria continually crippled by the massive loss of its labor force, infrastructure and industry, and economic opportunity, and under permanent bilateral sanctions.


Iran’s own version of strategic patience, the Washington Post‘s editorial board warns, is already on the verge of winning them the bomb, which the administration must then accept as a fait acompli. The administration believed, in its sophistication, that it could make a deal with the Dr. Jekyll aspect of Iran (to split it off as it were), and yet ultimately found itself across the table from Mr. Hyde.

The administration at one time portrayed the nuclear negotiations as distinct from the problem of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism, its attempts to establish hegemony over the Arab Middle East and its declared goal of eliminating Israel. Yet while the talks have proceeded, Mr. Obama has offered assurances to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the two countries have shared interests in the region, and the White House has avoided actions Iran might perceive as hostile — such as supporting military action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. …

Where it once aimed to eliminate Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, the administration now appears ready to accept an infrastructure of thousands of Iranian centrifuges. It says its goal is to limit and monitor that industrial base so that Iran could not produce the material for a warhead in less than a year.

Basically the ayatollahs will win the arm wrestling match with Obama but declare the American president the winner.  And he will raise his trembling limbs overhead to the sound of thunderous adulation. The result of such a championship victory, according to Henry Kissinger in testimony before Congress, will be nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. “Mr. Kissinger said such an arrangement would very likely prompt other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, to match Iran’s threshold capability. ‘The impact . . . will be to transform the negotiations from preventing proliferation to managing it,’ he said. ‘We will live in a proliferated world in which everybody — even if that agreement is maintained — will be very close to the trigger point.'”


Wiser minds know that Dr. Kissinger’s fears are unfounded. Obama has not been caught unawares by these developments; on the contrary, these apparent setbacks have been actively pursued as part of the administration’s genius strategy of “strategic patience.”  He’s pulling them in for an ambush.  Of course, as this post has pointed out, Obama’s foes have interpreted this strategic patience  as the belief that all bribes come to him who waits. So far they have been laughing all the way to the bank.

Yet in the end Obama may be vindicated.  If the last 6 years prove anything, it is the ease with which he can convince his voter base that his actions so far have been eminently successful. Since the difference between winning and losing turns out to be only a few letters in spelling, there’s a chance that he can do it again with the right sales pitch.

Those who think this impossible note how easily Susan Rice can utter the phrase “strategic patience” with a straight face.  As if it explained everything. And yet by some magic, for millions it will. These two words can be offered — and accepted — as the secret plan behind the failure of the Russian reset, the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, the pivot to Asia that never happened, the crisis in the Ukraine, the collapse of Libya, the fall of Yemen. All these are presented not as setbacks, but as the deep fruit of “strategic patience.” If you can buy that, you will surely buy defeat on the day it arrives as victory.

The cinematic epitaph of Custer’s 7th Cavalry was “they died with their boots on.” Perhaps for the administration the inscription will be, “they drank their own Kool Aid.”


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