Belmont Club

What Lies Behind the Whisper?

Whenever a series of events are observed, it is natural to ask whether they can be explained by a single underlying theme.  Here are the events, but what is the theme?

The US has expressed dismay over Iraq’s decision to let Iranian aircraft, which may be carrying weapons, use that country’s airspace for transit to Syria.  But Ken Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center said, “Maliki’s not looking gratuitously to piss us off, but at the end of the day Iran is wielding a lot more influence in Iraq than we are.”

“The Obama administration hasn’t figured out what it wants to do about Syria,” he said. “It’s hard to make a judgment that we need to invest a whole lot of political capital in getting the Iraqis to turn this off if we don’t know what we are doing ourselves.”

Meanwhile,  operations in Afghanistan are definitely either winding down, being scaled back or increasingly restricted. The AP reports that the White House offered to curtail drone activity operating from that country in an effort so salvage some of it. Pakistan rejected the offer as insufficient.

In a bid to save the CIA’s drone campaign against al-Qaida in Pakistan, U.S. officials offered key concessions to Pakistan’s spy chief that included advance notice and limits on the types of targets. But the offers were flatly rejected, leaving U.S.-Pakistani relations strained as President Obama prepares to meet Tuesday with Pakistan’s prime minister.

The New York Times now finds that two thirds of those polled now disapprove of President Obama’s “war of necessity”. It’s last core bastion of support — Republicans — now think operations there should be ended.  It is not clear what, if anything, the President now wants to achieve in that theater.

Then there is the dog that did not bark in the night. President Obama, who could say nothing good about Hosni Mubarak, has thrown his unqualified support behind a dictator.  The Washington Post asked why President Obama has chosen to support Vladimir Putin’s political ambitions in Russia when Putin is pursuing a policy of avowed anti-Americanism. “The return of Vladi­mir Putin to the Russian presidency ought to have caused the Obama administration to reshape its policy toward the Kremlin. Putin based his election campaign in large part on anti-Americanism; he has increasingly pursued policies contrary to vital U.S. interests, such as his military support for the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and his threats against NATO’s European missile-defense system.”

Remarkably, however, President Obama has responded to Mr. Putin’s return to the presidency by strongly affirming his commitment to partnering with the strongman. His meant-to-be-confidential assurance to outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev on Monday, that “after my election I have more flexibility” to solve “all these issues, but particularly missile defense,” was only the latest sign that Mr. Obama has decided to bet on deal-making with Mr. Putin rather than on democratic change in Russia.

Days after Mr. Putin’s election in a vote that international observers described as not free or fair, the White House issued a statement saying that Mr. Obama had called Mr. Putin “to congratulate him on his recent victory” and propose that “the successful reset in relations should be built upon during the coming years.” The statement made no mention of democracy or human rights in Russia, and Mr. Obama has said nothing on the subject since the election.

But what is the Administration’s policy toward the Kremlin?

Before answering that question, one should observe that Putin is anything but ungrateful. Pravda recently delivered a warm endorsement of President Obama while referring to Mitt Romney as “a rapist as a janitor at a girls’ dormitory or a psychopath with a fixation on knives as a kitchen hand”. By contrast it saw the Obama administration in these terms:

At a time when Russia and the United States of America are working together in space, at a time when the scientific communities and Universities are ever more intricately linked, when the security networks share information more freely on terrorists, on crime, combating drugs trafficking, at a time when the two countries are working together on trade and commerce and forging common links on intellectual property rights, up comes stick-in-the-mud wannabe Presidential candidate Mitt Romney blurting out outdated Cold War drivel like some redneck nearing an alcoholic coma.

Maybe one good turn deserves another. Lee Smith, writing in Tablet Magazine, ties all these threads together and argues that President Obama’s underlying game is to trade US influence abroad for brownie points with Putin, because in Obama’s view “Russia is where the real game is”. Given the centrality of arms control to the international security equation, the Middle East becomes chiefly useful as a bargaining chip. And who better to bargain with than a “strong man” — Putin — who can deliver the goods?

from Obama’s perspective, Russia is where the real game is. Russia policy is about Europe, Asia, and power politics between serious players. The Middle East is about Iran and an obscurantist third-world regime that threatens to build a nuclear bomb. Why should the president of the United States get all worked up about an Iranian bomb, when you consider that Russia already has a vast arsenal?

As the president recently confided to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, once he gets through this election, then he can focus on a reduction in bilateral missile defense. And then there are the further cuts in nuclear weapons that he wants to pursue with Moscow. In his second term, the president may get closer to the legacy he sketched as an undergraduate—a world where the United States and Russia are no longer on the brink of mutually assured destruction.

The President’s theory may be that if he gives Russia what it wants — its due place in the sun — then we will have peace in our time.  One question that is not addressed in all of this is what is Russia’s policy, since “a world without nuclear weapons” would be one in which Russia becomes an international nonentity — economically it is less important than Canada and only slightly more important than Spain.

Why should they want that? But a world with very few nuclear weapons but without missile defenses would be one in which Russia’s arsenal would be quite advantageous; it would “punch above its weight” to use a phrase that President Obama likes.  It would also be one that is vulnerable to destabilization by breakout powers.  Currently the US is listed as having 1,950 active nuclear warheads to Russia’s 2,430.  Pakistan has the fastest growing arsenal in the world and is listed as having 110 warheads.

Now imagine a world with “deep cuts” — fifty percent — resulting in 975 American and 1,215 Russian weapons in an environment where Pakistan suddenly announces it has 400 nukes — and neither Europe nor America has the relevant missile defenses.  That is a world in which Pakistan has a great deal more relative power than today. Moreover, in such a world, it is easy to form coalition where the US can be overmatched by one or two alliances of the remaining nuclear powers. Is such a world safer or more dangerous?  And how much is it worth, in terms of surrendered American influence, to reach such a state of nirvana?

Of course, there may be no underlying theme at all. Just politicians in pursuit of their short-term industry.  When Edward Elgar composed the “Enigma variations” he wrote about a meta-pattern embedded within it. “The Enigma I will not explain – its ‘dark saying’ must be left unguessed, and I warn you that the connection between the Variations and the Theme is often of the slightest texture; further, through and over the whole set another and larger theme ‘goes’, but is not played…. So the principal Theme never appears, even as in some late dramas … the chief character is never on the stage.”  The music has been analyzed for its presence, with only inconclusive results.

Various musicians have tried to tease out the hidden theme in the belief that it is a derivation of some well-known tune. Others have concluded that the theme is not a musical phrase but a literary or philosophical theme. Of the musical themes suggested as the Enigma, one of the most frequently proposed is the Scottish song “Auld Lang Syne”, which has been favoured by Elgar’s friend Richard Powell (husband of Dorabella), the musicologist Roger Fiske, and the writer Eric Sams. Elgar himself, however, said, “‘Auld Lang Syne'” won’t do. Two British patriotic songs have been proposed as the theme: “God Save the Queen” and “Rule, Britannia!”. Troyte Griffiths asked Elgar if the former was the hidden theme, and Elgar replied, “Of course not!” Proponents of the latter as the theme have pointed out that the theme is similar to the “never, never, never” section of the song. This theory was accepted by the president of the Elgar Society, Yehudi Menuhin. Before conducting the variations at Carnegie Hall, New York, in 1984, Menuhin addressed the audience explaining that the solution to Elgar’s enigma was “none other” than “Rule, Britannia”

What was the hidden theme then behind Obama’s whisper? In his own mind, maybe nothing.  But in Putin’s there may echo a refrain, though not “Rule, Brittania”.

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