Belmont Club

Waiting Game

The most interesting thing about Henry Kissinger’s analysis and rescue plan for American foreign policy, A Path Out of the Middle East Collapse, is the how little hope and optimism it excited.  Few appear to regard the article’s recommendations as feasible, and it has been received with the passivity air of a beaten boxer hoping only for a rematch.

This fatalism is especially depressing in the light of Kissinger’s diagnosis that Obama has basically unwound every foreign policy achievement of the last 40 years.   His considered belief that an outside chance of survival of the American position is still possible have struck not a spark.  The atmosphere is as funereal as the locker room of a team down 40 points at halftime after the failed pep talk of a former winning coach that has only served to remind the players of what an invidious contrast there is to their present one.

The debate about whether the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran regarding its nuclear program stabilized the Middle East’s strategic framework had barely begun when the region’s geopolitical framework collapsed. Russia’s unilateral military action in Syria is the latest symptom of the disintegration of the American role in stabilizing the Middle East order that emerged from the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.

In the aftermath of that conflict, Egypt abandoned its military ties with the Soviet Union and joined an American-backed negotiating process that produced peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan, a United Nations-supervised disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria, which has been observed for over four decades (even by the parties of the Syrian civil war), and international support of Lebanon’s sovereign territorial integrity. Later, Saddam Hussein’s war to incorporate Kuwait into Iraq was defeated by an international coalition under U.S. leadership. American forces led the war against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States were our allies in all these efforts. The Russian military presence disappeared from the region.

That geopolitical pattern is now in shambles. Four states in the region have ceased to function as sovereign. Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq have become targets for nonstate movements seeking to impose their rule. Over large swaths in Iraq and Syria, an ideologically radical religious army has declared itself the Islamic State (also called ISIS or ISIL) as an unrelenting foe of established world order. It seeks to replace the international system’s multiplicity of states with a caliphate, a single Islamic empire governed by Shariah law.

Kissinger noted that Obama has achieved something truly remarkable. “The U.S. is now opposed to, or at odds in some way or another with, all parties in the region”.  That is actually the good news.  The bad news is that unless the administration turns things around it will become much worse. “As competing regional powers strive for comparable threshold capacity, the nonproliferation regime in the Middle East may crumble. If nuclear weapons become established, a catastrophic outcome is nearly inevitable.”

A glimpse out of that deep hole alone should ignite a kind of desperate enthusiasm.  Instead of which the idea of ‘nearly inevitable’ is driving people to hunker down hoping survive, on the chance that luck may change by and by.  What other course is left to America’s hapless Syrian rebels, now reeling and taking heavy casualties under Russian air attack?  The president, who has singularly failed to draw a Red Line around his enemies, has actually drawn one around himself, as Ken Dilanian of the AP reports in “US draws a line on protecting CIA-backed rebels in Syria”.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Russian military intervention to prop up Syria’s government has brought new scrutiny of the CIA’s secret support to Syrian rebels fighting Bashar Assad. But how far is the U.S. willing to go to empower its proxies to take on Vladimir Putin’s allies?

The answer seems to be: Not very far. …

U.S. officials and outside experts say the Obama administration is unlikely to protect CIA-backed rebels from Russian air strikes — by providing them with surface-to-air missiles, for example — for fear they could fall into the wrong hands and be used against passenger jets in a terrorist attack. There is also little appetite in the White House for a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone in Syria, officials say.

And just to make sure everybody understands policy CNN says “U.S. pilots told not to react to aggressive Russian jets in Syria”  With leadership like that it’s probably best not to get too excited about any recovery of US stature.

For the moment it’s a waiting game — at least until January, 2017. The New York Times says, “the Army general in charge of the Pentagon’s failed $500 million program to train and equip Syrian rebels is leaving his job in the next few weeks, but is likely to be promoted and assigned a senior counterterrorism position here, American officials said on Monday.” Bloomberg adds:

Nagata was not only the head of the Syrian program, which Congress voted to finance last September to the tune of $500 million at Obama’s request, but the face of it as well. He was the one who explained it Congress, foreign governments and the Syrian opposition. Congressional leaders were shocked to learn of his exit.

“I don’t recall a time when a mission was entrusted to a senior officer, that that officer didn’t see that mission through to completion. We need to know why this change is taking place,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain told me Tuesday. “Whoever is replacing him will take time to get up to speed on a process that has already been significantly delayed.”…

For many in Congress, the general’s departure is one more sign that the administration is not serious about a program it lobbied so hard for only a few months ago. “The immediate loss is that Nagata commands a tremendous amount of respect on the Hill, within the government, and with the Syrians,” said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It’s hard to have someone leaving when this is just getting off the ground.”

Tabler also pointed out that Nagata the latest in a string of senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials working on Syria to leave the government recently. These include Daniel Rubinstein, the State Department’s special envoy for Syria, who will soon be appointed the next ambassador to Tunisia. “They just don’t see the president doing much, so people tend to do that in a bureaucracy, they abandon ship,” Tabler said.

Lots of people have got better things to do than run their heads against a brick wall. Kissinger’s advice is useless because there’s no one at the White House to take it. As Michael Crowley noted in Politico the staff is outvoted by the surpassingly brilliant incumbent.  “Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria is creating new rifts inside an exhausted and in some cases demoralized Obama national security team.”

Sources familiar with administration deliberations said that Obama’s West Wing inner circle serves as a brick wall against dissenting views. …

Obama’s refusal to take firmer action against Moscow has increasingly isolated several of his administration’s Russia specialists, who almost uniformly take a harder line toward Putin than does the president himself. They include Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs; Celeste Wallander, the National Security Council’s senior director for Russia and Eurasia; and Evelyn Farkas, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. Farkas’ recent announcement that she will exit the Obama administration this fall raised eyebrows among officials aware of her frustration that Obama hasn’t responded more forcefully to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his support for pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. …

Obama did face a public challenge in the form of an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday, in which the president grew visibly annoyed as interviewer Steve Kroft pressed him on the modest results of his campaign against the Islamic State and on whether Putin was successfully “challenging your leadership.”

Standing his ground, Obama repeated his argument that it would be a mistake to overreact to Putin, who he says is acting out of weakness, and that the Syria morass defies the kind of “silver bullet” solution sought by his critics.

American strategy, as formulated by president Obama, is as fixed as a pair of feet in concrete buckets. The most depressing thing about Dr. Kissinger’s pep talk is it assumes that the taxi’s going somewhere else besides the East River.

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