Belmont Club

The Buck Keeps Going

Things have been so bad in the Middle East recently that the New York Times observed that “President Obama spent a rare full day in the Oval Office after the deadly bombings in Syria and Bulgaria on Wednesday, calling the leaders of Russia and Israel and conferring with his national security staff. Then he took off again Thursday to spend the rest of the week on the campaign trail.”

With the White House in campaign mode nearly 24/7, many of the administration’s biggest foreign policy initiatives have been pushed to the back burner until after the election. From Syria and Iran to nuclear arms reductions and peace talks with the Taliban, the administration is mostly playing for time, trying to avoid decisions that could land the president in trouble or be exploited by his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney.

The same preference to spin over governance was articulated in an earlier post which said that “the administration is now entirely focused on giving their failing policies the appearance of life by any means necessary. They are counting on the public not noticing that what is billed as a party is actually an open-casket policy funeral in which deceased is presented, through the magic of mortuary makeup, as being in the pink of health.” But although the NYT admits the lack of substantive action, it attributes it to obstructive conservatives.

Mr. Obama himself acknowledged in March how the election had narrowed his options when he told Dmitri A. Medvedev, then Russia’s president — in a private exchange picked up by an open microphone — that he would have more flexibility after November to deal with Russian concerns over the American missile defense system.

The attempt to subordinate foreign policy to domestic politics is a quadrennial phenomenon, but “the lengthening of the political season, combined with the president’s understandable desire to be re-elected, has meant a longer distraction than in previous elections,” said Martin S. Indyk, director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

The White House’s policy, Mr. Indyk said, can be summed up as “no wars, no engagement in risky business abroad that can cost votes with key constituencies at home, no presidential involvement unless there’s an urgent requirement.”

Washington’s intense polarization has compounded the problem by depriving Mr. Obama of a bipartisan constituency in Congress for any foreign policy undertaking, whether it is nuclear arms reduction or plotting an exit strategy from Afghanistan.

As President Obama told Mitt Romney: “the buck stops with you”. But as historians have often observed, reality gets to vote on whether events unfold the way the President wants.

The WSJ cites US intelligence sources as saying that Iran may attempt to disrupt the oil trade by attacking platforms and oil tankers. “Officials said the information suggests that Iran could take action against facilities both inside and outside the Persian Gulf, even absent an overt military conflict.”

U.S. officials said some Iranians believe they could escape a direct counterattack by striking at other oil facilities, including those outside the Persian Gulf, perhaps by using its elite forces or external proxies …

Defense analysts said Iran has been training its Quds Force, a unit of the Revolutionary Guards, to conduct underwater terror attacks using frogmen. Tehran also could turn to Shiite militants in other countries including Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the U.A.E.

There is more stew bubbling on the stove. Eli Lake writes that with the “regime’s days appearing numbered, the CIA is racing to find Syria’s chemical and biological weapons before it’s too late”. Too late for what? Too late to find all of Assad’s and even Saddam’s WMD stuff before it gets loose. Did anyone say Saddam’s WMDs?

Paula DeSutter, who served as assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation between 2002 and 2009 and is now retired, said biological weapons could be a bigger a concern. A 2011 State Department report on the compliance of countries with arms control and nonproliferation agreements said it “remained unclear” whether Syria would use biological weapons as a military option or whether Syria had violated the Biological Weapons Convention.

DeSutter also said she would want the U.S. and international community to secure any remaining nuclear-related equipment from the al-Kibar reactor destroyed in 2007 by Israeli jets. Also unclear is what, if anything, Iraq transferred to Syria before the 2003 U.S. invasion. “That is the wild card,” said DeSutter.

Whether or not sensitive weapons technology was moved to Syria is a hotly disputed question in the intelligence community. James Clapper, now the Director of National Intelligence and formerly the director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, said in 2003 that he believed materials had been moved out of Iraq in the months before the war and cited satellite imagery.

Refugees are now flooding into Iraq. Some 30,000 Syrians have crossed the border into Lebanon in the last 48 hours.  Analysts are now worried that Syria’s ballistic missiles might be unleashed on Israel. “Just over half of Iran’s parliament has backed a draft law to block the Strait of Hormuz, a lawmaker said on Friday, threatening to close the Gulf to oil tankers in retaliation against European sanctions on Iranian crude,” Reuters reports.

Yes, a number of key decisions await the President’s next full day of work at the White House. Lake continues:

Other issues pending at the White House include who in the current Syrian government could remain in place if the regime falls and what the U.S. will do to protect Syrian religious and ethnic minorities.

While several government agencies and departments are drawing up contingency plans and drafting policy memos, the White House has ultimate control of the policy process and has yet to make a decision. “We are still waiting for red lines,” one Obama administration official who works on Syria issues told The Daily Beast. “This is a decision for the president.”

Yet how these decisions will be taken, if according to the New York Times, President Obama would prefer “no wars, no engagement in risky business abroad that can cost votes with key constituencies at home, no presidential involvement unless there’s an urgent requirement”? The campaign mode may mean that Syria and Iran may actually have a window of opportunity in which the President will only respond but tentatively or respond too late.


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