Streetwise Professor

September 22, 2009

Calling Bullsh*t on Obama and Gates

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:35 am

Last Saturday I expressed disbelief at SecDef Gates’s assertion that Russia did not enter into the administration’s calculations to drop perfunctorily the BMD sites in the Czech Republic and Poland; Obama reiterated the same view on his Sunday talk show marathon.  Today Stratfor’s George Friedman is similarly agog, figuratively rubbing his eyes while echoing the view that it is hard to imagine what would be worse: if Obama and Gates are lying when they claim thoughts of Russia never entered their pretty little heads, of if they weren’t.  Welcome to the party, George:

If Gates and Obama are to be believed, the decision to halt deployment in the Czech Republic and Poland was made without any consideration of Russian views whatsoever. It was simply the result of technical and military analysis, and the question of how the major power in the region — Russia — might react simply wasn’t considered.

That is difficult to believe — or more precisely, if it is true, it is startling in the extreme. On Oct. 1, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany will be meeting with Iranian representatives. According to decisions made last April, in which Obama participated, the United States will advocate intense sanctions against Iran, absent significant progress with Tehran over its nuclear program. Without Russian cooperation, those sanctions would have little effect. Therefore, the Russian view of the United States matters.

The United States was facing the choice of either abandoning the idea of effective sanctions — a move with significant consequences on a number of levels — or inducing the Russians to collaborate. The idea that no one in the senior ranks of the administration ever considered, during discussions of the BMD issue, that eliminating BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic was a core Russian demand stretches credulity. [Or, stomps, pummels, and eviscerates it.]

The issue is not, as the president has put it, one of Russian paranoia. The Russians might well be paranoid, but that paranoia is not a matter of incidental importance to the United States. Unless the United States is abandoning the idea of sanctions and moving to accept Iran as a nuclear power, or has already made the decision to strike Iran, Russia — paranoid or not — is important to the United States. We suspect that it crossed someone’s mind that in making this move now, the United States would be capitulating to a major Russian demand.

Certainly, it could not have escaped the administration’s attention that the decision, regardless of how it was made, would be seen by all as a response to the Russians. This is how the Poles and Czechs saw it; it is how the Russians saw it; it is how any reasonable observer would have seen it. That’s because this was a core Russian demand and because the announcement came two weeks before the meetings on Iran.

In foreign policy, it is always important to be prepared to pretend that the elephant is not in the room. But there has to be a touch of plausibility to the pretense. In this case, the problem is that the administration’s description of how it made this decision indicates breathtaking incompetence. In saying they took the decision without considering diplomatic consequences, U.S. officials are claiming the administration doesn’t know how to play major league ball — and seem proud of that.

Obviously, the administration knows how to play the game and obviously, officials were extraordinarily aware of the impact the decision would have in Moscow, Warsaw and Prague — and in Tehran. The timing of the move certainly was not calculated without consideration of its effect on the Russian position, come Oct. 1. The only thing we can figure is that the administration didn’t anticipate the effect in Washington, where there was substantial congressional unease over the matter. Perhaps Gates and Obama were trying to deal with that rather than with foreign reaction.

In any event, it was a very strange set of statements. “Plausible deniability” emphasizes the term “plausible.” This was merely denying implausibly. [Emphasis added throughout.]

Key phrase: breathtaking incompetence.  Friedman is being too kind.

With the ongoing implosion in Obama’s Afghanistan policy, where his cheap talk of the campaign and his stirring speech in March about a “war of necessity” is colliding head-on with his visceral dislike for the exercise of American power; the bankruptcy of his Iran policy, where  Ahmadinejad openly mocks the US; the futility of his dreamy  initiatives in the Israel-Palestine conflict; and his habit of embracing foes (while getting nothing in return) and shafting friends; the Obama foreign policy will soon have us pining wistfully for the halcyon days of Jimmy Carter.

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18 Comments »

  1. Gates is a moron. I wouldn’t usually be so harsh, but in 2008-07 he also proclaimed Iran would not have access to the S-300 “anytime soon.” Only in ant years has the passage of time been so swift that deliveries one year later were too far into the murky deeps of time to be worth bothering about. I ordered a belt once that took longer than that.

    The same wonderful voice now tells us that a projected 10y development for Iran’s missiles is far too far out to think about needing to deploy BMD. As if the development on our side wasn’t already reaching for a third decade and still is not complete. We’ll want to wait till the last minute. Nothing can go wrong with so cunning a plan.

    Comment by ThomasL — September 22, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

  2. Exacty, TL. Moreover, you’ve put your finger on a dramatic inconsistency in the administration’s explanation. The development and installation of the BMD will take time. So, if we defer development now, we won’t have the chance to have anything ready if our intelligence is wrong and Iran develops this capability sooner than currently estimated. (And we know our intelligence on these things is always perfect. Right). I am also very skeptical of any change in intelligence assessment that miraculously appears and supports an obviously political decision.

    Put another way, the Poland/Czech program was an option to develop an operational BMD. We had the option to proceed, or not, at various steps along the way. Options are most valuable in situations of uncertainty, and few things are more uncertain than the capabilities and intentions of a country like Iran. So, keeping the option open was extremely valuable. It would also have had political benefits. But no, Obama kills the option. That made little sense, even if you believe the option was out of the money.

    Fool.

    In uncertain environments, anybody who justifies killing options based on point forecasts is beyond moronic.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 22, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  3. Ironically enough, both the Professor and AK like to quote Mr. Friedman when it suits them. Interesting.

    What about the Azerbaijan option? As I recall Putin never took that off the table after proposing it to Bush at Kennebunkport two years ago. Azerbaijan would at least allow boost phase tracking if not targeting if the Russians allowed interceptors since any rocket headed for Europe would probably be launched over the Zagros Mountains.

    Turkey is probably out since (again another irony) the Iranians might withhold gas from Nabucco in retaliation for Turkish hosting of said base. That is probably not a likely scenario since the Iranian regime needs all the cash it can get but again another hard choice for Russophobes when it comes to their strategic priorities. The Iranians will probably try to suck in the Chinese with cheap gas to invest a billion or two in LNG just to make sure Europe and the West know they have options.

    My money is on permanent radar stations in Iraqi Kurdistan, probably a stone’s throw from the Hunt Oil pipe drilling.

    Comment by Steve J. Nelson — September 22, 2009 @ 4:28 pm

  4. Kurdistan is where the radar should have gone in the first place, if it was solely about the Iranian threat, it didn’t because it always was about hedging bets against Russia, and after insulting everyone’s intelligence pretending that it was not now the Prof is upset that Obama is insulting his intelligence by saying the same thing to justify a different policy choice.

    Comment by Steve J. Nelson — September 22, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

  5. Uhm, Steve–buy a clue.

    Technical considerations are not all that’s relevant here. Putting defense systems in Kurdistan is highly problematic due to security and political reasons that are completely absent in CR and POL. Similarly, the Azeri option is highly problematic for a variety of reasons for all who don’t have Kumbaya as their national anthem. Giving a third party of uncertain motives access to your technology, and control over one’s defense assets is foolhardy, to say the least.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 22, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  6. Steve

    Qabala is said to be in need of an upgrade.

    According to someone involved with such matters, the fault with Qabala is that it’s geographically too close to Iran in a way that’s not as good as having a shield a bot farther away. As was explained, with such a defense, it’s better to have some distance for the purpose of better picking up on a hypothetical attack.

    All this is said while agreeing that the missile defense shield for Poland and the Czech Republic was correctly scrapped for the reasons that have been stated – which have nothing to do and run counter to the idea that the O administration caved in and/or is naive.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — September 22, 2009 @ 5:58 pm

  7. I quote George Friedman because he is a realist with a correct perspective on most things, and doesn’t let partisan ideology blind his analysis.

    SWP’s problem is that he comes from the “with me or against me” school of diplomacy. Bargaining and compromises are not in his lexicon (and the US needs to do plenty of that to get Russian cooperation on Iran). Instead, he prefers a policy of confrontation with anyone and everyone who refuses to help the US pursue its national interests. Granted, this is an acceptable strategy for a hegemonic superpower, but this image of US power no longer corresponds to reality (if it ever did). One can only hope that an ideologue with a Brezhnev-like obliviousness to the real world like SWP never becomes US President.

    Comment by poluchi fashist granatu — September 22, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

  8. And to repeat an older point, the US already has ABM technologies that are better suited for defense against Iran, but which won’t alienate Russia like GBI installations in East-Central Europe. The latter is nothing more than senseless provocation for no tangible benefit.

    Comment by poluchi fashist granatu — September 22, 2009 @ 6:13 pm

  9. Steve–I knew you’d be all sore about me quoting Friedman agreeing with me chapter and verse. That’s part of the reason I hit the “publish” button with particular relish.

    BTW, I subscribe to Stratfor, and read it every day. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. Independently critical mind, dontcha know.

    And re “realist”–if there’s a problem I have with Friedman, is that he too often comes off as a cartoon realist. Too much of a purebred for me.

    And S/O, or WTF you call yourself these days (having some identity issues, are we?): read the freaking posts. For crissakes, my whole point was that Obama didn’t negotiate. He conceded unilaterally. So your whole comment is completely bogus–an absolute mischaracterization of what I said.

    Fact is, US is never going to get cooperation on Iran from Russia.

    And what’s more, pace Friedman, one of my criticisms of Obama’s decision is that through his unilateral action, he alienated allies and friends, and as I said in the post, that’s a pattern. Helluva way to reach out and build bridges.

    In other words, what you say is my problem ain’t my problem. And don’t get me started on inventorying people’s problems: I don’t have time to deal with all yours. LOL.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 22, 2009 @ 7:02 pm

  10. 1. It may have been returning the favor for Russia allowing transit of supplies to Afghanistan over its airspace.

    2. This was ultimately a symbolic gesture, with little practical effects, and both Obama and the Kremlin knows this. It was not a big concession at all, but good for PR – now it’s the Kremlin that could be painted as uncooperative.

    3. I think Russia will agree to cooperate on Iran if the US recognizes its sphere of influence over the post-Soviet space and agrees to the neutrality of the Visegrad buffer nations.

    However, as long as the US continues undermining Russia’s resurgence from its Near Abroad, there can be no understanding between them.

    4. Don’t take it personally. I’m sure you don’t want me to be US President either, or of any other country for that matter lol.

    Comment by poluchi fashist granatu — September 22, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

  11. I see. Russia extracts favors from those who are fighting and dying to protect its southern flank. Very nice. No wonder Russia is so admired around the world.

    (Relatedly, Cutie Pie: give the 9/11 thing a rest. (a) Talk is cheap. (b) It’s well past its due date.)

    Yes, symbolic. But symbols matter. Indeed, as Friedman notes, the symbolism is very important and very real to the Poles and other eastern Europeans. You cannot disregard the political importance of such symbolism.

    In game theory, it’s called signaling. It matters.

    There is no substantive connection between cooperation on Iran and conceding the FSU and FWP to Russia’s tender mercies. If that’s the deal, I say no. We have other ways of dealing with Iran that are less costly.

    My rule about people who want to be president: I believe that anyone who wants to be president is demonstrably unfit for the office.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — September 22, 2009 @ 7:51 pm

  12. Professor

    My 9/11 point at (what I offhand think was another thread) had to do with the often time selective application of the owe mind-set.

    On Stratfor, I find it a bit tabloid. I prefer The National Interest.

    Comment by Cutie Pie — September 22, 2009 @ 9:23 pm

  13. BTW, I subscribe to Stratfor, and read it every day. Sometimes I agree, sometimes I don’t. Independently critical mind, dontcha know.

    Interesting that you’re a fan of Stratfor too. I agree that he takes the realism too far sometimes, with not enough emphasis on the identity element of international relations.

    And S/O, or WTF you call yourself these days (having some identity issues, are we?)

    I’ve been DR, S/O and now PFG. Not that big a variety.

    I see. Russia extracts favors from those who are fighting and dying to protect its southern flank. Very nice. No wonder Russia is so admired around the world.

    Russia got no thanks for battling Islamists in Afghanistan in the 1980’s. In fact it got undermined by CIA / Saudi / Pakistani ISI deliveries of weapons and funds to the mujahedeen.

    Get real. Because the real world is ruthless.

    Yes, symbolic. But symbols matter. Indeed, as Friedman notes, the symbolism is very important and very real to the Poles and other eastern Europeans.

    That’s a valid point. But it seems Obama and Co calculated that the reputational costs would be less than the benefits of a) not sinking money into an increasingly outdated ABM system and b) reaching out an olive branch to Russia.

    There is no substantive connection between cooperation on Iran and conceding the FSU and FWP to Russia’s tender mercies. If that’s the deal, I say no. We have other ways of dealing with Iran that are less costly.

    Like bombing them? There’s problems with that scenario. Iran could wreck all sorts of havoc by mining the Strait of Hormuz, undermining the settlement in Iraq, using Hezbollah, etc… Russia won’t be too pleased either and will probably accelerate its resurgence in the Near Abroad.

    My rule about people who want to be president: I believe that anyone who wants to be president is demonstrably unfit for the office.

    So by your logic… probably every single US President was unfit for office?! (Otherwise why would they bother running).

    Comment by poluchi fashist granatu — September 22, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

  14. I see. Russia extracts favors from those who are fighting and dying to protect its southern flank. Very nice. No wonder Russia is so admired around the world.

    And another thought in relation to this… The US is not fighting there FOR Russia (though it aids both Russia and Iran inadvertently by doing so, ironically), but because it stepped / was forced into that quagmire. So Russia has nothing to lose by doing this, because NATO’s (increasingly the US) decision to stay in or leave Afghanistan does not depend on Russia, but on their judgments of when the mission has been accomplished.

    Comment by poluchi fashist granatu — September 22, 2009 @ 11:42 pm

  15. YOU OWE ME MON!

    Comment by Cutie Pie — September 23, 2009 @ 8:45 am

  16. It’s so ironic really. The Democrats are so shrewd and hardball politically when it comes to dealing with Republicans…yet so apparently naive, soft, and inept when it comes to political dealings with foreign nations.

    Strange. I wish Obama was half as clever in foreign policy as in his 2008 election campaign

    Comment by Ray — September 23, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  17. “Like bombing them? There’s problems with that scenario. Iran could wreck all sorts of havoc by mining the Strait of Hormuz, undermining the settlement in Iraq, using Hezbollah, etc… Russia won’t be too pleased either and will probably accelerate its resurgence in the Near Abroad.”

    With all due respect to AK (and to Penny who lamely suggest we’re the same person), I don’t think there are vast hordes of Persians eager and ready to blow themselves up in largely futile attacks on tankers in the Straits of Hormuz (contrary to popular belief, double hulled tankers are not so easy to ignite).

    Since the 1980s, Iran has preferred to fight America and Israel to the last Arab/Pakistani Talib rather than spill Persian blood. And the Chinese are not so stupid as to sell Teheran hundreds or thousands of anti-shipping missiles that could be used to cut their own oil supply. There’s also the collateral cost of losing desperately needed Chinese investment in their oil and gas industry if the regime does not at least purge the elements stupid enough to have attacked the tankers.

    Hezbollah’s alleged superb fighting power has always been somewhat exagerrated. They are not the Viet Cong. They were simply fighting on their home turf and maximizing the collateral damage to civilians to turn the world against Israel, even if the Saudis at the start of the war were probably secretly aiding Israel against them before their own ‘street’ forced them to change course. The Israelis sent a few dozen Farsi-speakers home in body bags during that war, though such losses are always well hidden from the world.

    The fact is, as long as Israel smartly stays out of Lebanon, Hezbollah will find itself still facing a network of informants from the Sunni and Christian minorities, all eager to tip off the Mossad for a fatal UAV strike. I hope they do develop their lasers to the point of zapping the Katyushas then respond by killing Hezbollah leaders and conspiring with the UAE and Saudis to cut off Iran’s gasoline supply. That is what they should have done in 2006 had the shield been better prepared and public opinion in Israel not forced a ground offensive.

    Comment by Steve J. Nelson — September 23, 2009 @ 7:52 pm

  18. There’s a good case to be made that Iran could effectively close the Strait of Hormuz for around a month before US aeronaval forces could clear it. The main vector of attack will not be suicide bombings but mines and AS missiles.

    http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/IS3301_pp082-117_Talmadge.pdf

    Re-Chinese. Stupid or not, but the fact is that they have sold them to Iran.

    Comment by poluchi fashist granatu — September 23, 2009 @ 11:22 pm

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