Belmont Club

You've Got To Fend

What thread could possibly connect the following four apparently unrelated events?

  1. An Israeli airstrike which just killed six top Hezbollah commanders (including the son of the deceased super terrorist Imad Mugniyeh) in Syria;
  2. Breaking reports that the  Shi’ite Houthi militia, believed to be controlled by Iran has just launched a major  attack on the Yemeni presidential palace, in what is viewed as a Tehran vs Riyadh battle;
  3. The administration’s threat to veto any new sanctions against Iran, even though, as the Washington Post’s editorial board notes, it would “mandate new sanctions only if Iran failed to accept an agreement by the June 30 deadline established in the ongoing talks”;
  4. The death of an Argentinian prosecutor the night before he was to reveal explosive details on alleged cover-up deal between Argentina and Iran of 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center.

They are developments within Barack Obama’s foreign policy universe, that’s what.  What they mean we will get to in a moment.

Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution described the chief executive’s security strategy as essentially a full-scale, covert participation in the Islamic and Middle Eastern civil wars.  America hasn’t withdrawn from the Middle East.  It’s right up to its elbows in it. The four events enumerated above are events within that civil war in which America is an active participant and whose outcome and aftermath the administration hopes to influence. In his  Assessing the Obama Administration’s Iraq-Syria Strategy, Pollack writes that we are backing proxies across the length and breadth of the region:

In both countries, the Administration hopes to empower moderate forces—both Sunni and Shi’a to the extent possible—to fight against all of the extremists, both Sunni and Shi’a. Indeed, to the extent that there is an overarching theme to the strategy, it is one of empowering moderate forces, an idea that ought to be applied more broadly across the Middle East.

Backing the different sides because it’s a whole lot more nuanced and more effective than invading a country and trying to turn it into postwar Germany. All across the Middle East the president is playing a balance of power game. In Yemen, which the president himself called his “model” for operations against the Islamic state, the idea is apparently to pit the Houthi against al-Qaeda so that the moderates can triumph.  Therefore the attack on the presidential palace is a win for Iran.

Obama hopes to make a nuclear weapons deal with Iran. In that context the Israeli attack on Hezbollah is probably a loss for Obama because it complicates his diplomacy, as does Congress’ plan to impose more sanctions on Tehran.  The death of the Argentinian prosecutor might be all for the best as there’s no use upsetting the applecart now.

See? It’s not senseless after all.  OK the administration’s losing across the board unfortunately, but that’s a detail.

He’s playing both sides of the fence everywhere. Pollock says, that in Iraq “the Administration has reconciled itself to the need to build, in effect, two separate militaries: a revamped Shi’a-dominated Iraqi Army and a new Sunni national guard” joined together by some kind of inclusive power-sharing arrangement. In Syria he is patiently looking for a force he can back with drones, confident that any proxy can be ushered into office by backing it with airpower and the running the resulting show from behind the scenes at arms length. Pollock explains:

It is worth noting that these ground forces do not have to be first-rate. They simply need to be good enough that, with the addition of American air power, they can defeat both Asad’s forces and those of ISIS and the other Sunni militants. That isn’t a very high standard. In its grandest moments, the Syrian armed forces never rose beyond a rigid mediocrity, and while ISIS has certainly shown both some strategic acumen and tactical ability, it faces both quantitative and qualitative problems of its own. By comparison, in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance could not defeat the Taliban until 2001 when it was backed by U.S. air power, and the Libyan opposition was a joke in 2001, but it defeated the remnants of Qadhafi’s military with NATO air support ten years later. Thus, the historical record demonstrates that indigenous ground forces too week to win without American air support can win handily with it.

Like a spider in a web he sits in the White House spinning his covert actions and deals.  But the cost of being a full participant in the Islamic civil war is the need for the administration to be extremely sensitive to the sensibilities of its partners, which include both the Sunni and the Shi’a and Turkey to boot.

If the reader is looking for the reason why president Obama is unable to take any position on terrorism other than to repeatedly say it ‘nothing has anything to do with Islam’; if you’re seeking an explanation for why he did not even attend the Paris solidarity march, look no further. He’s constrained by his partners.  He’s got too many friends among our enemies to offend anybody.  A man on every side of every issue, allied with Iran in Iraq, fighting them when he is not cooperating with them in Yemen; utilizing all comers in Syria and negotiating with the Ayatollahs on nuclear arms — being careful not to push them into the arms of Russia — must be cautious with his words.  No, Islam, either Sunni or Shi’ite or anything in between has got nothing to do with nothing.

At the same time Obama is Saudi Arabia’s staunch partner, the champion of the Sunni world and the secular regional universe too as he strives to be a good NATO ally to Turkey. He’s nothing but nuanced. Either its the ultimate case of multiple foreign policy disorder or genius. In any case, for this reason Congress must on no account be allowd to upset his exquisite calculations. Thus he will veto any attempts to impose sanctions on Iran. The NYT reports he is even looking for a way to keep Congress out of the approving any nuclear deal with Iran.  Why does Congress want to know anyway when he has all the threads in hand?

But this excess of conspiracy may backfire on the president. The editors of Cicero Magazine make an impassioned case for the proposition that “secrecy erodes the ability to make war”. “In his latest book, Lords of Secrecy: The National Security Elite and America’s Stealth Warfare, Harper’s scribe and Columbia University legal scholar Scott Horton writes that government secrecy and lack of public input are undermining the democratic process for going to war.”

If there is too much secrecy then president Obama represents no one but himself and since war is the act of a state, not of a single indvidual, Obamaesque secrecy essentially precludes building a national consensus.  We can’t go to war. It’s true, as Horton admits that there is:

this contradiction at the heart of our democracy’s ability to, in effect, wage war. Namely, that we cannot know too much or else it would endanger our safety. Yet with this veil of ignorance, we cannot make fully-informed decisions about war and peace.

But that does not obviate the need to explain policy to those in whose name it is made. It will be interesting to see what the administration will say if ever there is a mega 9/11, if ever there is a need for belli it will be embarrassing to make the case since it has been the administration’s position all along that there was never any casus. There may even be emerging a new and disturbing Obama doctrine: that for as long as there are no American “boots on the ground” then the public has no legitimate interest in knowing what is going on. Horton says:

go back and look at Reagan. He made a speech on why he was authorizing a military operation in Grenada. He called in congressional leaders. That was an extremely limited operation. It had to do with freeing American college students supposedly in harm’s way who were under threat. Reagan also made such statements before the decision to bomb Libya [in 1986]. You see Obama taking the other approach to avoid building up public interest in the matter. There was even an April 1, 2011 [OLC opinion] that stated there were no American soldiers at risk of being injured or killed [in Libya] so the legitimate interest of the public was less [in Libya]

In this expansive view having “no boots on the ground” becomes a license for the president to lie or at least be economical with the truth. Rather than being chastened by his midterm election defeat, if anything the president seems ready to ramp up his unilateralism another notch. “House and Senate Republicans came away from their joint retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, this weekend bracing for bitter confrontations with President Obama and skeptical that the president is willing to make deals even on the handful of policies where the executive and legislative branches could find agreement.” In the president’s phrase he is going to spend the next two years playing offense, not defense.

Meeting with Senate Democrats in Baltimore last week, the president reportedly declared that he was “going to play offense” with Republicans.

“We’re not feeling overly optimistic that the president has gotten the message from the last election,” said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Texas Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee.

There’s a ball game playing out in the Middle East and the public doesn’t know who’s on first. As 2015 deepens and the headlines fill with news of terror attacks against the West, civil war in the Middle East and mass outrages in Africa; as Iran inches toward a nuclear bomb nothing the administration does in response will appear to make sense.  We don’t have the key. It will be incomprehensible largely because the public — indeed Congress, including the Senate — will have been left out of the context.

The president may have a why and wherefore in mind, but they will not be the reasons he vouchsafes to the public. Those real reasons he will keep to himself, trusting that his wisdom is greater than the public’s.

We don’t need to know.  Perhaps more tragic, there may be a widespread liberal belief that it’s better that way.  Tell the Republicans — tell the public — the real reason and they’ll ruin it.  Statecraft is the province of the bien pensants. But even peons have the right to know their fate sometimes. In fiction, the hoi polloi had the right to overhear the counsel of wizards.

Those who listened unwarily to that voice could seldom report the words that they heard; and if they did, they wondered, for little power remained in them. Mostly they remembered only that it was a delight to hear the voice speaking, all that it said seemed wise and reasonable, and the desire awoke in them by swift agreement to seem wise themselves.

When others spoke they seemed harsh and uncouth by contrast … for some the spell lasted only while the voice spoke to them, and when it spoke to another they smiled, as men do who see through a juggler’s trick while others gape at it….

Theoden opened his mouth as if to speak, but he said nothing. … It was Gimli the Dwarf who broke in suddenly. “The words of this wizard stand on their heads … in the language of Orthanc help means ruin and saving means slaying.”

“Peace!” said Saruman, and for a fleeting moment his voice was less suave, and a light flickered in his eyes and was gone.

But we yokels don’t even have that right any more.  All the explanation we are allowed today is John Kerry getting James Taylor to play You’ve Got a Friend in Paris.


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