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Round Two

A kind of tipping point may have been reached in recent weeks.  Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reports that with the loss of Yemen, America has been deprived of one of its main bulwarks against Islamist forces. "The evacuation of 125 United States Special Operations advisers from Yemen in the past two days is the latest blow to the Obama administration’s counterterrorism campaign, which is already struggling with significant setbacks in Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the volatile region, American officials said Sunday."

The loss of Yemen as a base for American counterterrorism training, advising and intelligence-gathering carries major implications not just there, but throughout a region that officials say poses the most grievous threat to United States global interests and to the country itself. ...

“We will have no intelligence footprint,” Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “Good intelligence stops plots against the homeland. Without intelligence, we cannot effectively stop it.”

Paul Bonicelli writes at Foreign Policy: "Look at a map of the Arabian Peninsula and the surrounding region while taking into account recent headlines and you’ll see that both sides in the war between Shiite and Sunni radicals are defeating the United States. That is, radical Islamist forces (both sets of them) are winning and the United States is losing. We are in one of the most significant crises we have faced in the Middle East because the White House has managed to discourage and weaken all of our allies and at the same time provide opportunities to all of our enemies."

This means the most important U.S. interests in the region are in peril. It is within the realm of possibility that the Saudi kingdom could fall to both the Islamic and the Shiite forces surrounding it even though these forces are locked in the centuries-old contest between Shiite and Sunni. And if the Kingdom falls, Israel and Egypt are alone....

Significantly, Iran stands to score a double victory in the cold war it launched with the United States over 25 years ago. Unless the Congress checks the Obama administration, the Iranians might well win the nuclear contest with the United States this year. But it could win the conventional forces contest with the United States even sooner, although it would be sharing that victory with Sunni radical forces like the Islamic State and al Qaeda.

It is almost impossible to imagine a way for Obama to leave office without being seen as having presided over a catastrophe that let our greatest enemies rise to perhaps unalterable victories. The catastrophe: a nuclear Iran and its proxies surrounding what’s left of Saudi Arabia after the Islamic State and al Qeada forces disfigure and dismember it.

The Middle East is the most important region in the world to the United States along with Europe in terms of U.S. security. Obama might have dodged a bullet with Ukraine (we’ll see) because Putin, like the Soviets, operates according to Realpolitik which America can understand even when it doesn’t agree with it. Putin’s aims are relatively limited: he wants respect, a cowed near-abroad, and, above all, to stay in power. He does not want the international system fundamentally changed.

That all sounds pretty dire and one hopes its not true. But former GOP presidential candidate John McCain is even more pessimistic.  He would disagree with Bonicelli about Russia's relative benignity. RealClearDefense editor Harry Kazianis sat down with Sen. John McCain to discuss options for American allies and Russia and was told "Mariupol Is Next". The Russians, he believed, are prepared to secure the link to the Crimea and then move on to the Baltics, where they could take one or two provinces of Estonia or Latvia just to show they can against which NATO would do absolutely nothing.

So, are we doomed?

These kinds of forebodings may never eventuate.  Or they may happen far more slowly than we imagine.  Adam Smith was once told by John Sinclair that "if we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined," to which Smith replied "be assured, my young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation."  He forgot to add that there was a great deal of repairing in them as well.  Nations, like the massive oceans, are hard to freeze; but once frozen they require an equal amount of energy to thaw out again.

An example of how long it takes to fix a giant mess is contained in an Economist article, The Tragedy of the Arabs. There was a time when the Middle East ruled the world.  "Yet today the Arabs are in a wretched state. Even as Asia, Latin America and Africa advance, the Middle East is held back by despotism and convulsed by war."  There was a moment when it seemed there might be a quick fix, but expectations died just as quickly as they flared.  They are in a thousand year hole, centuries in declining and in consequences centuries in rising again.

Hopes soared three years ago, when a wave of unrest across the region led to the overthrow of four dictators—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen—and to a clamour for change elsewhere, notably in Syria. But the Arab spring’s fruit has rotted into renewed autocracy and war. Both engender misery and fanaticism that today threaten the wider world.

Still, even slow change, like the movement of tectonic plates, may manifest itself in sudden adjustments. One grows broke gradually, then abruptly. Perhaps the most dramatic signs of an impending shift are from within the president's own party. John Podhoretz, writing in Commentary says a crisis within the Democratic Party's Jewish base has "exploded".

We may be hard upon a great moment of testing for American Jews. Are they going to fall for this? Are they going to allow themselves to be used as a wedge against Israel in hostile territory like the United Nations? Are they going to provide more ammunition to the president and his effort to still his critics only weeks before the United States might be announcing its acquiescence to the gravest existential threat the Jewish people have faced since the Holocaust?

It's not just the Jewish base. There are now Democrats, like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who are openly questioning the president's strategy. That itself is a sign that it is no longer business as usual. But what may make the situation different this time is that Obama no longer has the means to recover. He has lost so much ground, burned so many bridges and double-crossed too many allies to turn the situation around with light-footprint methods.

There is often the idea that the president can save the day by finding the right button.   But Obama is at the bottom of a 2,000 day hole.  The buttons aren't there to push any more. The greatest threats facing the administration are the unintended consequences of its own mistakes. When a real crisis comes it will find a resolution that he will not fully control.

But the situation, though serious, is far from hopeless. The American political system can reconfigure itself with surprising speed because under the surface politicians in Washington are always working on a Plan B, which often take the shape of arcane legislation or opaque political deals which were proposed beforehand in the vague anticipation of just such an eventuality. American politics may be stupid, but it is far less stupid than it might at first seem.

The process of ruin rarely takes place by itself.   It is often paralleled by renewal.  Both trends manifest themselves in a crisis. The greatest asset that administration has is that its opponents have similarly saddled themselves with their own imbecilities. For example, coldly considered, ISIS can never survive. It is too virulent, too destructive to have any real staying power. Nor does Putin's version of expansionism have any long term prospects, doomed as it is by its dependence on oil, as are the Saudis. China, for its part, is a ticking time bomb built on a bubble.

In every showing of the cards, it is not only one's own mistakes -- great though they may be -- which count. The other guy's blunders must also be reckoned with. Bonicelli is probably right to think that the old order is finished. What the new order will be, is what no one, least of all the feckless president, can predict with any confidence.  The president promised to spur a fundamental transformation, but it probably won't be the one he expected.


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