Streetwise Professor

May 29, 2012

Some Play Chess. Some Play Checkers. Lord Knows What Obama is Playing.

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:15 pm

For a perfect example of gibbering incoherence, take a look-if you can stomach it-at the Obama administration’s Middle Eastern policies.

Earlier today, I asked on Twitter whether it would be possible to replace “Libya” with “Syria” in Obama’s 2011 speech justifying intervention in the former country and not conclude that if the intervention were justified in Libya it would be in Syria.  I wondered if anyone would dare to ask Obama or Carney this, and lo and behold, someone did (h/t R).  And no, the answers didn’t make any sense.

“There’s a significant amount of analysis you could do on why Syria is different from Libya,” he noted, saying action against Colonel Moamer Kadhafi followed unity among regional governments and a UN Security Council blessing.

Obama took office in 2009 as Americans’ patience for quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan wore thin, but as he brought troops home, sought to frame principles for the use of US force abroad.

Officials have balked at the idea of an Obama “doctrine” partly to avoid difficult-to-answer comparisons between the crises in Syria and Libya.

But in the case of Libya, Obama established clear tests for when “the course of history poses challenges that threaten our common humanity and common security.”

He argued Washington had a unique ability to stop horrific violence, a broad international mandate for action, an international coalition ready to act, the backing of Arab nations and a plea for help from Libyans.

There is considerable unity among Arab governments against Syria.  The violence is horrific.  Our capabilities to influence the outcome in Syria are as great or greater than our capabilities in Libya-which we hardly utilized.  There is a broad international mandate-except for Russia, China, and Iran.  And that is preventing anything from proceeding in the UN.

Obama is also operating under the delusion that Russia will assist in dealing with Iran.  As if.  Russia clearly has a strong motive in keeping things on a low-to-medium boil, in order to keep oil prices high: and besides, in Putin’s zero sum view, anything that helps the US or the west makes Russia worse off.

There is one major difference between Syria and Libya: Libya is strategically irrelevant, but Syria is strategically crucial.  It is Iran’s primary ally, and is an essential link in the support network connecting Iran and Hezbollah.  Removing Assad would seriously weaken Iran, and most importantly, Iran’s ability to project power through proxies like Hezbollah.  Eliminating Assad would be an indirect approach at Iran, and would economize on force-strategic principles with which Obama is clearly ignorant.

So Obama chose to intervene, half-heartedly, based on humanitarian motives in a strategic backwater but has refused to get involved in a strategically important country where the humanitarian considerations are equally or more pressing.

Makes perfect sense. No wonder people in the administration flee from the idea of an Obama Doctrine.

What does Obama do? He indulges his inner Jupiter, personally selecting targets for his Game of Drones (props to R for that very apt description), at whom he hurls thunderbolts-Hellfires, actually-from the sky.

Or should I say his inner LBJ?  Remember that LBJ personally approved bombing targets in Viet Nam, in what has become the quintessential example of misdirected presidential micromanagement devoid of any strategic sense.

And the same is true of the Drone War generally, and Obama’s role in it.  At most, this campaign is a war of attrition, and attritive methods are a confession of strategic bankruptcy.  Moreover, there are strong reasons to doubt that it works even as a war of attrition, which requires that you actually reduce the enemy’s forces and diminish his combat power.  It is at least arguable that in Pakistan-Afghanistan that the drone strikes have actually strengthened the enemy, by encouraging recruitment and alienating the Pakistani government.

It is frequently the case that those who are overwhelmed by the big issues, the hard choices, focus on those things they can control, regardless of their importance.  Obama can play Jupiter and feel like he’s doing something even when there is complete drift in the strategically important policies, notably Iran and Syria.

And again the complete incoherence is obvious. Obama was an early and dogged critic of Bush’s tactics in the terror war, including Gitmo, enhanced interrogation, and rendition.  So how are these things veritable war crimes, while it’s perfectly acceptable to kill by drone strike?

Obama’s flack defends the kill list:

“President Obama made clear from the start to his advisers and to the world that we were going to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the American people from harm, and particularly from a terrorist attack,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said.

That was the Bush-Cheney justification, no? So why is it OK for the Obama goose but not the Bush gander?

What’s more, there was at least some possibility that the Bush methods that candidate and Senator Obama excoriated produced some actionable information.  Crispy corpses in the Tribal Territories or the Yemeni wilds not so much.

I challenge you all to come up with an example of a more incoherent, strategically inverted set of foreign policies in American history.  I surely can’t.

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