A Tetchy Defence of a Bad Foreign Policy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on May 7, 2014


A little over a week ago, President Obama was asked in the Philippines about his foreign policy. It was a rather complex question that asked for Obama’s “vision,” “doctrine,” and “guiding principle“—and also how he “answer[s] those critics who say they think the doctrine is weakness.” The President gave a 949-word answer. To say that it was defensive, disingenuous, and wrong-headed would be to say the least of it.

Obama started, as he so often does, by attacking a series of straw men:

Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force. … [W]hy is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?

This needs only to be underlined. Barack Obama is President of the United States, the guarantor of the security and liberty for the entire Free Bloc and the global State system, and here he is broadcasting to the world that two tough but really quite small wars have sapped the will of the public and not only is he not trying to reason with them and explain why they are in error with all this naval-gazing, he is looking for ways to surrender to such sentiments—including with reference to the budget, the most dishonest tool used by those who want a less active American foreign policy.

Obama’s critics are thoughtless warmongers who “would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests.” As I say, the sound of straw men falling is deafening.

Then Obama wades into some specifics, starting with that most spectacular of his failures: Syria. Obama is good enough to concede that “nobody suggests … us being involved in a land war,” which is actually real progress. Heretofore Obama has said the choice is “either boots on the ground or head in the sand.” But Obama takes on two criticisms: (1) That he should be helping the opposition, and he says, “we’re assisting the opposition,” and (2) that he should have struck at the regime last August over the chemical weapons attack. Obama interestingly says that his critics say such a strike should have been used to “get [the] chemical weapons out of Syria,” but he had shown that this was unnecessary: “[W]e’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike.” He then says triumphantly: “at that point [criticism of his Syria policy] kind of trails off.”

The President’s assistance to the Syrian rebellion has been best-described by Frederic Hof as a “check-the-box exercise“. A previous Saudi effort at getting weapons into the rebels in the spring of 2013 was ended quickly by Obama when some ended up in the wrong hands. In April 2013, Obama’s notorious “red line” of August 2012 on the use of chemical weapons having been trampled by Assad—and his policy of regime-change from the previous August all-but abandoned—it was decided to increase non­-lethal aid to the rebellion. Finally in June 2013 lethal aid was authorised but none of it arrived until September, and it tailed off very quickly. Only in March this year did any U.S. weaponry show up among the rebellion again. The recent reporting on the U.S. assistance going to the rebels on the Southern Front transpires to be little more than an exercise in public-relations: such assistance is not nearly big enough to make a real difference to the course of the war—and it has never been intended to depose Bashar al-Assad. The denial of MANPADS is the final proof that this is cosmetic. The theory behind it is that, after the calamitous failure of Geneva Two, an insurgent force opposed to the regime, al-Qaeda, and ISIS can be erected that is powerful enough to apply pressure on the regime so that it reaches a negotiated settlement—hence the rather sporting agitprop of the “Southern Front” alliance to dissociate itself even from the “sensible psychos” of Jabhat an-Nusra*. What this has meant in practice is pursuing a re-run of the Egypt policy—which you might have seen didn’t end so well—in that Obama tried to maintain the structure of the Syrian regime but change its front-man (the so-called “Alawite General” scenario). The problem is that this is not an authoritarian military regime where—as in Egypt or Algeria—the front-man is interchangeable: this is a sectarian totalitarian regime. To remove the front-man is to collapse the entire system—think Iraq, but worse. More to the point—as with Iraq—American policy should not want to keep together these organs of internal repression: they should be disbanded and their lead participants either prosecuted or driven from public life.

As to the chemical weapons, this has always been a side-show. It would have been correct to enforce the ban on the use of weapons of mass destruction but even here Obama wobbled. Obama would not have prevented the Ghouta atrocity even if he had read the intelligence before-hand because he had come to the conclusion that some uses of WMD were “ordinary“: he had watched at least fourteen smaller-scale CWMD attacks with indifference. But while the military strikes would have avenged poor humanity and enforced one of the few established norms we have left to us, its real point should have been to change the balance of power: to take out the regime’s runways and military installations—the things that give it such an overwhelming advantage against the rebellion. Instead we were told the strikes would be “unbelievably small“—this was in public, for everybody, including Assad, to hear. The idea that Obama got Assad to give up his chemical weapons with a threat of force is false: that threat was never believed. Worse, the “deal” with Russia that called off even these pinprick strikes was a defeat for the United States and the Syrian rebellion: the Kremlin decisively outmanoeuvred Washington and secured its client in the Levant a new lease on legitimacy and more room to kill. The recent stalling of this “deal” shows what anybody could have seen eight months ago: the only way to disarm Assad is to remove him.

As to what should be done, this is the realm of military strategists—and Obama is only the President, after all, with whole departments dedicated to providing him options. But there are obvious things that even non-military people can see should have already been done. The first one is to break the terror-sieges and end the use of starvation as a weapon of war. Given that Syria is almost tailor-made for a CIA operation—with potential bases of operation in Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and Iraqi Kurdistan—vetting the rebellion should not have been too difficult but the Obama administration only got together a unified list to share with allies in February. In supply, internal movement, and military attack it is the air-force that gives the regime its main advantage: this can be neutralised in only two ways. If a no-fly zone is not going to be provided over areas of the north and south to give the rebellion a place to organise, and for the people who have defected in their minds to actually defect to, then surface-to-air weaponry should certainly be given to trusted rebels. This business of the mighty air defences of the regime has been repeatedly shown by Israel to be false: Israel has not even had to penetrate Syrian airspace on many occasions. And if a commitment is actually made to ousting the regime by force of arms then the CIA or Special Forces can be deployed inside Syria, as they would almost axiomatically be anyway with a no-fly zone, and killing Assad would not be a major task. This could all have been done more than 20 months ago—even after Obama’s re-election, if he insisted. Even in late 2012 there were half-way decent options. All this is more problematic now but the temptation to fatalism and despair must be avoided: this is only over if we act as if it is. With real effort the outcome can be forced down the spectrum from absolutely catastrophic to merely very bad.

Obama then moved on to Ukraine. His administration has “mobilise[d] the international community“; “Russia has never been more isolated“; its actions have been “rejected uniformly around the world“; there is “diplomatic pressure” and “sanctions” on Russia; and Ukraine is now “looking” West. One may possibly remember when Obama was given a Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W. Bush: the best his supporters could say was that he had changed the conversation or the tone or the global image of America—nebulous and completely untestable propositions. Obama now resorts to this mode of argument. Suppose the “international community” actually existed, what would its mobilisation look like? What would it do? What does “isolated” mean when a State is expanding its borders? What good is Kiev’s “looking” West as it is swamped by an invasion from the East? Obama answers none of that and issues this taunting challenge to his critics:

Well, what else should we be doing? ‘Well, we shouldn’t be putting troops in,’ the critics will say. … Well, okay, what are you saying? ‘Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more.’ Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?

That’s right. The President of the United States believes a lawless regime like Vladimir Putin’s can be restrained with international censure far more effectively than by weaponry. Ukraine probably cannot hold off a Russian invasion but the weapons can at least allow them some resistance and perhaps allow them to bloody the Russian dictatorship enough that it prevents a march on Kiev, which in the current position of abject weakness cannot be ruled out.

The President then tried to make a positive case, albeit wrapped in a sneering jibe at his critics:

We don’t [take actions] because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York thinks it would look strong. That’s not how we make foreign policy. And if you look at the results of what we’ve done over the last five years, it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger, and in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one example.

The very best of luck defining what “our alliances are stronger” means in real terms and it will be interesting to see if Obama rejects those legions in “office[s] in Washington and New York” who have defended him. Take the one definable concept there: the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia, announced in 2012. The main idea really is to get away from the Middle East. This was never possible. It was tried at the end of the Cold War and 9/11 was the result. Europe’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil, and Europe’s primary place in the American global architecture, means this region simply is not going away: left to its own devices it only ever gets worse and its furies are exported our way. But just try it as a thought experiment. Clearly the President’s recent trip, in its atmospherics, was meant to take the focus off the Fertile Crescent drowning in blood and America’s enemies taking the strategic upper-hand, and to showcase a rare success for the administration in its preferred arena of diplomacy and trade. But as the New York Times (hardly an Obama-hating rag) recorded, Obama was set back on one of his “most cherished foreign-policy projects” when Tokyo rejected “an agreement under which Japan would open its markets in rice, beef, poultry and pork, a critical step toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership“. So much for “partnership“.

Obama’s record in the Far East is not a good one, despite this being his ostensible focus. China has been bullying the Philippines over fishing rights—another round of which seems to have kicked off this morning—and Manila has received no serious U.S. backing. Peking has also wholly illegally extended its borders with air power. Obama at first responded well, sending B-52s through the area. Then he submitted to Chinese demands for the provision of identification, as if it was within their rights to demand such things, completely undercutting Japan. The failure to pull the trigger against Bashar al-Assad had its most obvious effect in emboldening Putin in Ukraine and alarming America’s allies in the region, but it was in fact a perfect foreign policy failure: all of America’s enemies were encouraged, and all of her friends made less secure. South Korea was among the governments that told President Obama he must strike at the Syrian tyrant for violating his red line, and for perfectly-understandable reasons.

Obama noted that he didn’t have “time to lay out [his] entire foreign policy doctrine,” and of course that was correct and in many ways it was ridiculous to even ask. But why is it that he is getting questions asking what exactly he would do if, say, the North Koreans attack the South? Because before now the credibility of the U.S. President was a given: when America said it had provided a security guarantee to South Korea everybody knew what that meant. Having seen Obama draw a “red line” around chemical weapons in Syria, saying it would change his “calculus,” everyone thought they knew what that meant, too. Then it turned out that not only were small-scale attacks not what was meant but even massive attacks could be forgiven if the Kremlin thought quickly enough. For States like South Korea and Poland, in the shadow of aggressive dictatorships and relying on America credibility to deter attack as much as American power to repel one should it ever take place, this is extremely destabilising, to take the “realists” on their own ground. Obama has put into circulation the idea that if aggressors are piecemeal about it and don’t give him an obvious tripwire, he would rather allow the aggression than use force, and as should now be obvious it is weakness that is provocative by tempting aggressors, not strength.


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Postscript: I had seen Richard Haass the other day take a swipe at Obama’s foreign policy, and even for the die-hard partisans that should have been a signal that something was really very wrong. But this morning’s critique from David Ignatius should be outright terrifying to the President’s supporters. Ignatius is especially close with CIA sources and it is to him the administration turns to see how new security policies will fly with the voters. So it should give pause that he now says:

It’s painful watching … Obama in Manila last week … In the realm of power politics, U.S. presidents get points not for being right but for being (or appearing) strong. … The intangible factors of strength and credibility (so easy to mock) are, in fact, the glue of a rules-based international system. Under Obama, the United States has suffered some real reputational damage. … This damage, unfortunately, has largely been self-inflicted by an administration that focuses too much on short-term messaging … priorities rather than sound, interests-based policy.


[*] To be clear, the “Southern Front” forces have no ideological affinity for Nusra/al-Qaeda, whose forces are weak on the Southern Front, especially in Deraa where tribalism is the main force, and looks askance on the zealots and especially the foreigners. But the “Southern Front” was formed on Feb. 11 and on Feb. 23 a major offensive began where they have worked side-by-side with Nusra every single day. They would surely have chosen differently if there were other options, but it still means it is flatly untrue for the “Southern Front” to claim it has nothing to do with Nusra.

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