Belmont Club

Suez II

Now China has called for an end to the airstrikes on Libyan and an immediate ceasefire. This comes as the New York Times describes the intention of the United States to palm off leadership of the operation to Europe, assuming the major European powers can agree on who will call the shots.   The Libyan operation was never going to be easy, but it has been made all the harder by a lack of strategic leadership and squabbling at the top.

The Wall Street Journal reports the same split in European ranks. The basic question was, who would lead after the Americans left? “Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini on Monday called for command of operations enforcing the no-fly zone to be passed to NATO, suggesting the use of Italy’s seven military bases by coalition forces lacked proper coordination. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron also said NATO should lead operations. But France, which just rejoined NATO’s command structure in 2009 after three decades, indicated it doesn’t want NATO to play a central role.”

One reason why France may want to keep NATO out the loop is Turkey’s opposition to the operation. The NYT says “Turkey, a NATO member that has opposed the use of force in Libya and was still seething over being omitted from a planning meeting in Paris on Saturday, refused on Sunday to back a NATO military plan for the no-fly zone.” But though the sight of newly integrated France riding roughshod over long time NATO member Turkey may rankle,  with the carrier Charles de Gaulle approaching the Libyan coast and the relative preponderance of its air assets, it will be hard to deny Paris a leading role.  It is inevitable that “he who pays the Piper” will have a large claim to calling the tune.

But to what sheet music? President Obama publicly expressed hope for regime change in Libya while accepting that the military mission will fall short of it, perhaps in the hope that Santa Claus or the tooth fairy would make up the difference. And with America soon to be gone, if Obama is to be believed, the French or NATO will have the choice of aiming for the former or accepting the latter. Since Obama has effectively declared that failure is an option, then failure is an increasingly probably result.  With China and Russia in opposition and the Arab League doing a double-cross the Europeans can only bull through if they bet the farm.

In all probability neither country can easily topple Khadaffi and install a successor regime without American support. That would result in a tremendous defeat for London and Paris, with echoes of the 1956 Suez crisis, when Washington withdrew its support from the Anglo-French operation against Nasser, leaving them high and dry.

But Washington will not escape unscathed. By weirdly going along with the Paris and London only to leave them in the lurch Washington will humiliate its strongest allies in Europe. The damage to NATO and the Western alliance will be considerable, even leaving aside Turkey’s feelings. It will call into question whether America can still be relied on to be the regional hegemon, a question that is being asked all over the world.  American Interest argues that regional rivals are probing at the periphery like wolves circling a wounded tiger. American Interest identifies three areas where regional rivals are stealthily advancing, one of which is the Middle East.

Up and down the frontier of American global power, from the South China Sea to the Middle East, from the Caucasus to the north Central European plain, U.S. allies are increasingly nervous. Along the littoral rim of East Asia, South Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese and others in the region watched anxiously throughout 2010 as China ratcheted up efforts to assert control over strategic waterways and challenge the U.S. position in Asia. In the Middle East, too, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States ended the year less confident than ever that the United States would somehow bestir itself to contain an aspiring nuclear-armed Iran. And on Europe’s eastern fringe, despite efforts at détente with Moscow, Poland and the Baltic States entered 2011 with deep uncertainties about America’s long-term regional commitment in the face of a decrepit but atavistically revisionist Russia.

Viewed separately, these are unrelated regional silos, each with its own geopolitical rhythm, security logic and ranking in the hierarchy of American strategic and political priorities. But seen together, a different picture emerges. In all three regions, small, geopolitically exposed states with formal or informal U.S. security commitments straddle age-old strategic fault lines in close proximity to rising or resurgent power centers. In all three, assertiveness on the part of these larger powers has led American allies to reassess U.S. assurances. And in all three, American allies have been at best temporarily reassured, and at times unsettled, by Washington’s response. This has led them all, to one degree or another, to invest in new strategic options to hedge against the possibility of eventual American retrenchment.

The goal of aspiring regional powers is simple: to scatter US alliances in the area, either with a view to Finlandizing them or getting them to switch allegiances. And here is Barack Obama, handing it to them on a silver platter. By letting France and Britain get on the carpet then yanking it out from under them, Barack and Hillary are doing a phenomenally effective job of destroying the faith their predecessors sought to build.

In every part of the periphery allies are asking themselves: can we trust Obama? South Korea is currently engaged in talks with Washington about the reliability of “extended deterrence”, a term describing the reliance of a non-nuclear ally on US deterrent capability. The key question Seoul will be asking is whether America will nuke Pyongyang if Pyongyang nukes Seoul. In such a matter there will be little room for nuance. But President Obama is the heart and soul of nuance. Asked to describe his policy towards Libya the President said:

“It is U.S. policy that Gaddafi needs to go. We’ve got a wide range of tools in addition to our military efforts to support that policy. We will continue to pursue those, but when it comes to our military action, we are doing so in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 that specifically talks about humanitarian efforts, and we are going to make sure that we stick to that mandate”.

And that has got to worry them. It is hard to get a policy “yes” or a “no” out of President Obama. At times one may elicit a “maybe” but its validity expires faster than a gift certificate from Bernie Madoff. American Interest notes that allies in all the peripheries are now glancing nervously at one another, making their own arrangements for safety.

U.S. allies in the Middle East and Asia carefully noted the cancellation of Third Site Missile Defense in the fall of 2009 as a possible indicator of U.S. strategic thinking on their own neighborhoods. According to European diplomats, officials from the Gulf States and Taiwan expressed concern over the U.S. policy shift in Central Europe, noting parallels between their own strategic situations and those of Poland and the Czech Republic. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak traveled to Warsaw and Prague for “bilateral talks on military assistance”, but experienced observers saw instead an Israeli effort to gauge U.S. regional intentions. …

U.S. allies in all three regions are concerned about the long-term intentions and staying power of U.S. security backing. They have begun to look for ways to diversify their strategic menus. The first and most troubling option is military self-help. This is least evident in Central Europe, where the local security environment is quiet and allied defense budgets are constrained, but in Asia, where the security situation is more strained, U.S. allies appear to be in the early phases of a regional arms race.

It is almost every man for himself — as they may soon learn — even in Paris and London. This is true in the Middle East most especially. After Barack Obama ditched President Mubarak, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia quickly understood that nothing could be taken for granted any more — and began to crack down hard on internal dissidents. Caroline Glick at the Jerusalem Post says that Washington has descended into “strategic dementia” — it is not acting in its own self-interest. Indeed it seems incapable of even apprehending where its interests lie.

That strategic insanity is now playing itself out in Libya, where against all odds a fourth rate dictator looks set to survive against three of the mightiest powers on earth simply because they have been led so incompetently. It is a totally self-inflicted epic fail; the triumph of auto-destruction. Explaining why British troops were marched into the maw of machine gun fire in the First World War, historian Alan Clark said it was because they were “lions led by donkeys”.  Not all the courage in the world could compensate for stupidity. What phrase might be used to describe Barack Obama has not yet entered currency, but maybe “elephants led by donkeys” would be a start.

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