Belmont Club

The Wannabee

David Ignatius, writing in Real Clear Politics, provides a glimpse into the kind of template the Obama administration regards as a solution.  He describes Washington’s efforts to create in Afghanistan and South Asia a stable division of spoils where power, influence and money are shared to the satisfaction of all.  Then with everyone bought off, peace will return.

The U.S. recognized more than four years ago that the best way out of the Afghanistan conflict would be a diplomatic settlement that involved the Taliban and its sometime sponsors in Pakistan. State Department officials have been conducting secret peace talks, on and off, since 2011. That effort hasn’t borne fruit yet, as the Taliban’s recent offensive in Kunduz shows.

But the pace of negotiations has quickened this year, thanks to an unlikely U.S. diplomatic partnership with China. A senior administration official said Monday that “we’re hopeful that there will be a willingness on the part of the Taliban to resume negotiations,” despite the intense fighting in Kunduz and elsewhere. Beijing’s involvement is a “new dynamic” and shows an instance where “U.S. interests overlap with those of China.”

In the process Ignatius illuminates the central paradox of a foreign policy at once rhetorically idealistic and exceedingly cynical.  In this seeming contradiction is the key to the administration’s philosophy. There are no ordinary people in Obama’s calculus, only players of one sort or another. The fate of Afghanistan is to be Islamabad’s reward for agreeing to one of those “grand bargains” which lie at the end of every Obama rainbow. Ignatius explains how if the Pakistanis help him out they’ll be awarded regional power status.

The White House is also exploring what could be a diplomatic blockbuster: possible new limits and controls on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Such an accord might eventually open a path toward a Pakistani version of the civil nuclear deal that was done with India in 2005….

Pakistan prizes its nuclear program, so negotiations would be slow and difficult, and it’s not clear that Islamabad would be willing to accept the limitations that would be required. But the issue is being discussed quietly in the run-up to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington Oct. 22. Any progress would break a stalemate that has existed since the U.S. detected Pakistan’s nuclear program in the mid-1980s, and especially after Pakistan exploded its first weapon in 1998.

Conceptually the administration’s diplomacy is similar to brokering deals among criminal gangs. The key is for the Godfather to figure out who should control what so that a ‘natural order’ can established and all unnecessary internecine violence eliminated. The advantages of this approach must have seemed so self-evident to the president he chided Vladimir Putin on March, 2014 in a speech before the European Union, for not getting with the program.

Russia’s leadership is challenging truths that only a few weeks ago seemed self-evident, that in the 21st century, the borders of Europe cannot be redrawn with force, that international law matters, that people and nations can make their own decisions about their future. …

And that’s why Russia’s violation of international law, its assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, must be met with condemnation, not because we’re trying to keep Russia down, but because the principles that have meant so much to Europe and the world must be lifted up….

Understand as well this is not another Cold War that we’re entering into. After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. … I believe that for both Ukraine and Russia, a stable peace will come through de-escalation, a direct dialogue between Russia and the government of Ukraine and the international community, monitors who can ensure that the rights of all Ukrainians are protected, a process of constitutional reform within Ukraine and free and fair elections this spring.

It was a speech that might have been creditably uttered by the head of the Five Families were it not marred as the Guardian notes in that it was delivered not by Vito Corleone but Mario of the Super Mario Brothers.

An eve-of-battle speech it was not. As a stirring call to arms, it lacked fire. Some among his invited Euro-elite audience in the glittering Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels took to taking selfies or sending Twitter messages.

If they had been hoping for a second Duchess of Richmond’s ball, held on the night before Waterloo, they were disappointed.

In practical terms, Obama added little or nothing to the mild punishments already handed out to Moscow. Only if Putin transgressed again, in eastern Ukraine or the territories of neighbouring Nato members, would more sanctions be imposed.

Ordinary people are collateral damage in the world of players.  Once grasped, it is easy to understand why the administration is indifferent to the greatest refugee crisis in the history of the world; unmoved by the destruction of communities which have existed for thousands of years;  uninterested in the destruction of irreplaceable civilizational artifacts.

The administration has consistently preferred the company of dictators.  When unrest broke out in Iran early in his term, Obama aligned himself not with the dissidents but the Ayatollahs.  Some were surprised by this, but it proved the rule rather than the exception.  He saw in moderate Radical Islamism (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood) the hope of the Arab world.  He negotiated with the Taliban and Castro; he instructed Hillary to “reset” with Putin’s Russia. He re-established an embassy in Damascus to deal with Assad.  Though the Kurds would be his friends, he preferred the company of Erdogan.  Time and again the president’s calculation was the same: deal only with the men with guns, never the men with dreams. Explaining his contempt for the Syrian democratic opposition, Obama dismissively said:

This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.

Except he said it as shouldn’t.  The problem with trying to play the Godfather is one actually has to be the Godfather and Obama was not. Yet  until the price of membership emerged there was a superficial attractiveness to running with the Alpha Wolves, to be among the movers and shakers who could rearrange the world over a glass of brandy without having  to deal with Congressmen sporting bad salon tans.  

Given this temptation, Obama was incentivized to act as if the democratic processes were an inconvenience. Alan Dershowitz, an eminent liberal legal expert who was once supported Obama, belatedly realized that Obama had evolved to with regarding himself bound by the Constitution on the Iran deal.  Dershowitz wrote:

The Framers of our constitution probably would have regarded the nuclear deal with Iran as a “treaty,” subject to a two thirds ratification by the Senate. At the very least they would have required Congress to approve the agreement by a majority vote. It is unlikely that it would have allowed the President alone to make so important and enduring an international agreement.

Obama’s preference for autocratic action was abetted, if not fostered by the anti-democratic system of international institutions in which his fellow leaders operated. A British minister recently told a Conservative Party conference that “governments use the European Union to bypass national democracy and pass laws that national parliaments would not accept, a Home Office minister has admitted.”  International organizations give them super-powers and so they use them.

Karen Bradley told a fringe meeting at Conservative party conference that other countries sometimes asked British MEPs to push legislation through the European Parliament so it could not be blocked by their own national legislatures.

She used the example of mandatory passenger name records on flights, which she said British MEPs were currently pushing through in Brussels for an unnamed country.

Substitute P5+1 for EU and the Iran deal for “refugee policy” and you get the drift. It must have been an intoxicating prospect for the newly elected Barack Obama,  who had never held an substantial executive job in his life, to ascend so directly to the unaccountable pinnacle of power.

The apparent advantages of personal power were deceptive. It came at the price of isolating the administration from the institutional expertise which normally surrounds it.  It cut him off from pros, the people who knew why things were as they had been. Without Captain Congress and Colonel Constitution to set him straight, 2nd Lieutenant Barack H. Obama might like some newly minted platoon commander  feel no obligation to listen to the grizzled sergeants who had successfully led the platoon in actuality until then.

This false of confidence in his own genius encouraged the president to “denigrate” — to use the words of Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal — the professional advice of successful military men and to substitute his own questionable schemes in their place.

David Petraeus testified last month to the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Regarding Syria, the former general and CIA director urged a credible threat to destroy Bashar Assad’s air force if it continues to bomb its own people. He also recommended “the establishment of enclaves in Syria protected by coalition air power, where a moderate Sunni force could be supported and where additional forces could be trained, internally displaced persons could find refuge, and the Syrian opposition could organize.”

But Barack Obama does not agree. At his Friday press conference, the president described such views as “mumbo-jumbo,” “half-baked ideas,” “as-if” solutions, a willful effort to “downplay the challenges involved in the situation.” He says the critics have no answers to the questions of “what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it.”

America’s greatest living general might as well have been testifying to his shower drain for all the difference his views are going to make in this administration.

So it is with this president. It’s not enough for him to stake and defend his positions. He wants you to know that he thinks deeper, sees further, knows better, operates from a purer motive.

Remember how he mocked Mitt Romney for suggesting that Putin might be a problem?

The pitiable state of Obama’s real native ability was exemplified by his attempt to crowdfund relief for refugees fleeing Syria. “As Syrian refugees continue to flee the violence at home, President Obama is turning to the modern tools of Silicon Valley entrepreneurship as a supplement to the more traditional means of humanitarian relief. At the request of officials from the White House Office of Digital Strategy, the crowdfunding website Kickstarter has begun its first social service campaign aimed at raising money for the United Nations refugee agency on behalf of Syrian refugees.”

The Washington Free Beacon thinks it is no coincidence that “Obama’s top advisers on ISIS, Russia, and Cyber-Security have all resigned over the past two weeks”.

Last week, President Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan announced that he was leaving at the end of the year. Far less attention has been paid to the string of other high-profile resignations that have rocked the administration since September 22, when Bloomberg reported that John Allen, the retired general Obama hand-picked to lead the U.S. war effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, was stepping down.

One week later, on September 29, POLITICO reported that Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official responsible for overseeing U.S. relations with Russia and Ukraine, was leaving her post after five years. According to the site, the administration is expected to “have a hard time finding a replacement,” as Farkas’s resignation comes at a time of considerable division within the Obama administration over how to respond to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria.

The resignation of Ari Schwartz, the administration’s top adviser on cyber-security, was barely acknowledged. Schwartz stepped down on October 1, having served in the position since March of last year. His tenure coincided with a series of damaging cyber attacks believed to have been carried out by the Russian and Chinese governments, including the large-scale theft of sensitive employee information from the Office of Personnel Management.

He had yet to learn that the men who could rearrange the world over snifters of brandy could also beat each other to death with baseball bats.  It will be interesting to learn from future histories (if any are written) exactly when Putin and other American enemies first realized that he was faking it.  But when the moment of discovery came, Obama soon realized that running with wolves came at the price of terrible danger.

Perhaps the solution to the administration’s dilemma lies counterintuitively in less rather than more presidential action. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski’s exhortation to Obama to exercise “strategic boldness” and retaliate against Russia should send chills of terror down everyone’s spines. Going by his past performance any such attempt will result in a shambles so complete it can hardly be foreseen.

It might be far better if president Obama went back to basics and played by the rules.  He should refuse to give billions to hostile powers without consulting the senate and refrain from military action without a declaration of war by Congress. It might also be advisable if he stopped regarding professional military advice as “mumbo jumbo”.  Glory would more likely accrue to 2nd Lieutenant Barack H. Obama if he would but let Sgt Franklin Rock figure out where to put the machine gun rather than siting it himself.

Unlike most men who felt humbled at being chosen president, many of Obama’s followers actually felt on his election that  he elevated the office rather than vice versa. Jason Hill at the Daily Kos captured this odd historical expectation when he wrote in 2008 that:

Obama carries with him The Capital of Restoration. The unprecedented outpouring of joy and tears at Obama’s victory from people all over the world is a clear sign that Obama can and will restore America’s rightful place in the pantheon of the world community. … Obama carries The Capital of Moral Authority. Moral authority is a quality that emanates from Obama.

Thus was messianic leadership substituted for the constitutional. In this way was institutional expertise supplanted by rank amateurism. Ultimately president Obama was just an ordinary man who got in over his head. If he is to recover from the shellacking received at the hands of the wily Putin he must rediscover the ability to channel the genius of the American people rather than substitute his own meager abilities in their place. He must try to remember that his greatness comes from the greatness of his nation, rather than from some imagined virtuosity in himself.

Come back Sgt. Rock, come back. And show Mario where to put  the foxholes while you’re at it.

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