Belmont Club

When Everything's For Sale

One of the most interesting recent articles in the New York Times is a report by Mark Mazetti and Matt Apuzzo describing how a large part of the administration’s Middle Eastern foreign policy is paid for by the Saudis.

When President Obama secretly authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to begin arming Syria’s embattled rebels in 2013, the spy agency knew it would have a willing partner to help pay for the covert operation. It was the same partner the C.I.A. has relied on for decades for money and discretion in far-off conflicts: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Since then, the C.I.A. and its Saudi counterpart have maintained an unusual arrangement for the rebel-training mission, which the Americans have code-named Timber Sycamore. Under the deal, current and former administration officials said, the Saudis contribute both weapons and large sums of money, and the C.I.A takes the lead in training the rebels on AK-47 assault rifles and tank-destroying missiles.

“From the moment the C.I.A. operation was started, Saudi money supported it,” the article continues. Not surprisingly the Saudis are calling a lot of the shots. “The long intelligence relationship helps explain why the United States has been reluctant to openly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses, its treatment of women and its support for the extreme strain of Islam, Wahhabism, that has inspired many of the very terrorist groups the United States is fighting.”

The payment arrangements may also explain why the best of the West’s Syrian rebels are affiliated with al-Qaeda. “Anonymous U.S. officials now tell the media that CIA-backed rebels have begun to experience unprecedented successes … Yet these gains reveal a darker side to the CIA-backed groups’ victories … reports from the battlefield demonstrate that CIA-backed groups collaborated with Jaysh al-Fateh, an Islamist coalition in which Jabhat al-Nusra—al Qaeda’s official Syrian affiliate—is a leading player.”

A simpler era might take a dim view of this kind of “leading from behind”.  Today’s leaders, however, can see it as perfectly legitimate. In the first place, despite periodic vows by Western leaders to extirpate terrorism, they apparently lack the power to do this.  Jay Solomon of the Wall Street Journal writes that it looks like the administration paid Iran $1.7 billion for 3 hostages. As to influencing events on the ground in Syria  ‘what’, ask Paul Macleary and Dan de Luce in Foreign Policy, ‘can 200 US commandos actually accomplish in Iraq?’

Since nobody ever thought the West would ever fight a war again, nobody, except perhaps the US, has the infrastructure to do it. Stripes says the French Army has been strained to the breaking point by two small interventions in West Africa.  A former senior French officer said, “we’re completely out of breath. The French military isn’t in any position to lead a new operation.”

The Institute for the Study of War says the administration’s vaunted “grand anti-ISIS coalition” is “a myth” designed to conceal what is an emerging anti-US threat.

The superficial convergence of Iranian, Russian, Turkish, and Saudi strategic objectives with those of the U.S. on ISIS as a threat masks significant divergences that will undermine U.S. security requirements. Iran and Russia both seek to reduce and eliminate U.S. influence in the Middle East and are not pursuing strategies that will ultimately defeat al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, some linked to al Qaeda, stem from the ruling party’s intent to reestablish itself as an independent, Muslim, regional power. Finally, Saudi Arabia’s objectives remain shaped by perceived existential threats from Iran and a growing succession crisis, causing key divergences, especially over support to Salafi-jihadi groups.

All the administration can do is manage the optics.  According to an article in National Interest, “American allies” are effectively “going rogue” and pursuing their separate rivalries. The Turks seem to care but little what Obama thinks. “Standing at Biden’s side for statements after their meeting, [Turkish prime minster] Davutoglu repeatedly referred to Syrian Kurds allied with the United States — a fighting force called the People’s Protection Units and known as YPG — as a terrorist organization on par with the Islamic State.” It was a performance that Joe Biden could only counter with a fixed smile.  Berated by Saudi Arabia for giving Iran a windfall of gigantic proportions, John Kerry could only say that the US-Saudi friendship was as strong as ever.

International relations are increasingly an exercise in bribery, just as when the Romans tried to buy off the barbarians.  Military victory has long since ceased to be a serious objective.  Describing the suicide of SEAL Team 4 commander JW Price in Afghanistan after losing four of his men, the New York Times noted that Price was distraught over deaths which were seen as meaningless.

Commander Price told confidants that his superior had said to him shortly before the team deployed to Afghanistan to bring everyone home. The Navy said the officer, Capt. Robert E. Smith, typically passed along that common guidance to his team leaders. But with the United States pulling back, other military officers were urging their men to exercise greater caution, several of them said.

“Commanders were no longer judging successful deployments by the tried and true standards of enemies killed on the battlefield, but by the number of casualties their own people suffered,” Capt. Milton J. Sands, a former SEAL team commander, told Navy investigators looking into the death of Commander Price, his friend.

In a hundred different ways the administration has signaled that resistance is not only futile, but possibly immoral.  Today’s breed of warriors are exemplified by a Czech politician, formerly a Communist — then Putin stooge and EU parliamentarian — who died only a few days after being arrested for trying to withdraw 350 million Euros from a Swiss bank for purposes unknown.

The Czech Communist party confirmed media reports of his death on its website on Friday. No cause of death was given. Media had reported Ransdorf, 62, had checked into the Institute for Clinical and Experimental Medicine in Prague, Reuters reported.

Ransdorf was arrested in December along with three Slovak nationals. Swiss police said they had tried to withdraw, or transfer, EUR 350 million ($378.74 million) using forged documents. Ransdorf denied after his arrest that he was trying to carry out an illegal transaction.

Of course he died before any connection to Putin could be disclosed.  This follows recent reports that Spain’s far-left “Podemos” (Yes We Can) party was secretly on the payroll of Iran. “El Confidencial said the US Drug Enforcement Administration had information” that:

Pablo Iglesias, the pony-tailed leader of the anti-austerity party laughed off the accusations …  received some €5 million ($5.4 million) from media companies administered in Spain by Iranian regime-linked businessman and academic Mahmoud Alizadeh Azimi … inflated sums paid to firms linked to Podemos for broadcasting services. And that the cash was channelled to the organization from Iran through third countries including Dubai and Malaysia.

Fixers are the new soldiers of the 21st century.  The nature of modern conflict, with its cloak and dagger, cash and carry, has placed a premium on information security.  Ars Technica reviewed a book describing how Barack Obama created a new and elaborate legal infrastructure to electronically spy on just about everybody.  It is a high priority because the narrative and information are so important.  It is so vital they are trying to make it illegal to generate any data unreadable to the federal government.

This month, two state lawmakers in New York and California have introduced legislation that would ban the sale of devices that come with an encryption capability that law enforcement cannot access. Legal experts told Ars that if these bills become laws, they would likely be illegal and would face notable challenges.

He even cites a 2014 speech given by FBI Director James Comey that touches on this exact issue.

“These are cases in which we had access to the evidence we needed,” Comey warned. “But we’re seeing more and more cases where we believe significant evidence is on that phone or a laptop, but we can’t crack the password. If this becomes the norm, I would suggest to you that homicide cases could be stalled, suspects could walk free, and child exploitation might not be discovered or prosecuted. Justice may be denied, because of a locked phone or an encrypted hard drive.”

The most important commodity in the Western world is information — recall that money is a form of information.  Encryption would make it impossible to see who is working for whom.  Foreign Policy has an interactive visualization of the gigantic scale of corruption in China.  Everybody is working for somebody but nobody is working for China.  And so it may be for the rest of the world.

In an environment where Saudi Arabia is paying for American intervention in the Middle East, where China is getting paid from American sanctions relief to Iran and Russia is paying Eurocrats for whatever it pays Eurocrats to do, the lines of reporting get blurred.  Loyalties can be ambiguous in a world of shadows unless one has the reassurance of being able to read other people’s mail.

In Obama’s world of Smart Diplomacy, traditional military strategy has taken a back seat to friendly persuasion. This explains its peculiar character.  The administration’s solemn promises to crush ISIS and smite this or that terrorist organization are not serious. They are simply window dressing to conceal the real action, which in almost every case is trying to do a deal with the backers of armed groups.

In the new paradigm the solution to every international crisis depends on reaching some arrangement or division of spoils between the players.  If some agreement can be hammered out, paid for by concessions at the expense of necessary victims — whether the Kurds, Jews or Middle Eastern Christians —  then the dogs of war will be called off ultimately to starve in their kennels.

In this context the failure to respond to the attack on the Benghazi consulate is less important than Hillary’s failure to secure her email server. The death of Ambassador Stevens and his companions was merely a physical loss.  By contrast Hillary’s email fiasco represents the potentially far bigger disaster.  It compromises Obama’s game.  It leaks the reservation price.  It discloses the best alternative to a negotiated settlement.  It shows who can be bought. If one reads former SecDef Robert Gates’ remarks on Clinton’s server with other eyes, it appears what he objects to most is not Hillary’s lack of moral fiber, but her sheer incompetence, her inability to keep the secrets.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Thursday said he believed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s secret email server was hacked by either China, Iran or Russia.

‘I think the odds are pretty high,’ Gates said in an interview with Hugh Hewitt. ‘The Pentagon acknowledges that they get attacked about 100,000 times a day.’ … ‘I never used email when I was head of CIA or head of the Department of Defense.’ … ‘I preferred dealing with people face to face and putting a signature on a piece of paper on matters of real national security and importance.’

President Obama’s idealistic world requires a profound faith in the power of cynicism.  It also requires plenty of secrets and lots of money wielded by  ruthless men willing to do anything to preserve a global order whose survival is greater than the life of any nation-state.

In some ways the Obama administration represents the final rejection of the so-called “lessons” of World War 2.  In the years since 1945 it has been endlessly repeated that the world should never allow aggression to march again.  Yet a month before Obama was elected in 2008 Geoffrey Wheatcroft argued in the Washington Post that Munich was doomed more by bad luck than bad strategy.  Munich actually should have worked and its accidental failure set a bad example for statecraft ever since.

Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who had resigned as foreign secretary in 1938 to protest appeasement even before Munich, was driven by the dread of being seen as another Chamberlain. Eden mounted a foolish military expedition that turned into a national humiliation and ended his career. …

Still spooked by the shadow of Munich, LBJ would escalate the Indochina war to show that he “wasn’t any Chamberlain umbrella man.”

Nor did President Bill Clinton want to be another Chamberlain. He bombed Serbia in 1999 and mused, “What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier?”

To a  postwar European society tired of a Churchillian America, the problem was the world lacked a leadership with the courage to re-run the Munich experiment.  Fortunately it now has that leadership. With any luck it will succeed where Chamberlain had the misfortune to fail.  If not, then at least they meant well.

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