Top Seven Errors President Obama has made on the Middle East

Yesterday I explored the errors and fantasies in Gov. Mitt Romney’s WSJ op-ed on the Middle East. Here I will briefly go over the mistakes that the Obama administration has made in the region. Unlike the proposed blunders of Romney, I have to say, most of these are errors of omission or of an abundance of caution. I’d give Obama a C on Middle East policy, whereas I’d give Romney’s announced plans an F. Still, the present administration has had significant failures.

1. Obama came into office determined to restart the peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. He failed in this attempt. In part, he was stymied when Kadima Party leader Tzippi Livni failed to attract enough coalition partners to form a government, in February of 2009, allowing Likud hard liner Binyamin Netanyahu to become Prime Minister. Netanyahu had boasted of derailing the 1990s Oslo peace process, and was the least likely partner for Obama you could imagine. After briefly acquiescing in a settlement freeze for some of the West Bank, which got Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to open negotiations, Netanyahu managed to deflect Washington’s demands that he go back to the bargaining table by vastly increasing the rate of Israeli colonization of the Palestinian West Bank. The Palestinians angrily withdrew, not sure why they should try to negotiate over a pie that was being actively gobbled down by the other side. Since his failure, Obama has neglected to speak out on Israeli aggressive colonization measures or even on settler attacks on mosques, churches and individuals. Obama appears, incredibly, not to have realized how hard it would be to accomplish anything on this front, and not to have realized that he would have had to make it a top priority and put his presidency on the line about it, as Jimmy Carter did at Camp David. Sending George Mitchell out as a special envoy was simply too little.

2. Obama accepted the plan of David Petraeus and other Pentagon officers (who, admittedly, boxed him in) for a troop escalation in Afghanistan, combined with an ambitious counter-insurgency program that aimed at pacifying the country ahead of a US withdrawal. The alternative, allegedly championed by Vice President Joe Biden, was a much less ambitious counter-terrorism approach. The latter would not involve big conventional armies but sending light mobile special operations units in to deal with violent cells where they popped up. The operation against Bin Laden had this shape. The big counter-insurgency project and the troop ‘surge’ manifestly failed, as I predicted at the time. Petraeus and others were misled by their Iraq experience, where the US troop escalation in 2007 had some success, but only because it coincided with a Shiite ethnic cleansing of the Sunnis from Shiite neighborhoods, which fatally weakened the Sunni guerrillas, so that the US could polish a lot of those cells off. Afghanistan was not comparable.

3. Obama has used economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to deflect the enormous pressure from Netanyahu and his allies in the American Israel lobbies (which work through Congress) to bomb Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. Such a strike would release toxic chemicals and metals and would kill thousands of non-combatants in Isfahan. But the latest round of very severe sanctions on Iran, to the extent of trying to prevent the sale of Iranian petroleum, go beyond a boycott to being a form of blockade. It isn’t a naval blockade. Rather, Obama is preventing Iranian banks from interfacing with their counterparts and making it hard for other countries to pay Iran for the petroleum they buy from it. The US is now also threatening third-party sanctions on countries that buy Iranian petroleum. Blockades, like ultimatums, routinely cause wars. Roosevelt’s cutting off of Japan from US petroleum was part of the reason for Pearl Harbor (the Japanese had a choice of becoming a normal country or trying to keep their empire, and in the latter case the generals believed they had to take the Dutch East Indies for its petroleum, instead, and so had to neutralize the US pacific fleet). Moreover, there is danger of causing so much economic pain and isolation with severe sanctions that children and other non-combatants cannot get access to, e.g., needed medicines. Obama has put the US on a war footing with Iran, and may not have been as clever as he imagined about avoiding the traps Netanyahu set for him.

4. Having joined in the NATO effort to protect Libyans from the murderous regime of Muammar Qaddafi, Obama seems to have more or less lost interest in that country. It was predictable that when an idiosyncratic, personalized, police state collapsed, the country would limp along without the needed institutions until they were rebuilt. NATO (which is led by the US) should have helped train up a new Libyan army and police. As it is, the militias thrown up by the civil war are still too powerful (and some have become gangs), and the new elected government has too few police and military tools to establish order. In March, a mere 250 troops were graduated from the Tripoli academy. (Though, as I have underlined before, despite occasional incidents, security is better in Libya than we had any right to expect, and it isn’t the basket case it is often depicted in the US press).

The current Neocon critique of Obama over a terror cell’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the US ambassador and 3 others, by the way, makes no sense to me. No president could have done much to prevent such a sudden terrorist attack, and the fog of war would always prevent an exact understanding of the events for a period after such an attack. Why CNN has been bringing Murdoch hacks on, who have no knowledge of the situation on the ground in Benghazi, to make this flimsy case mystifies me.

5. Obama has been peculiarly passive as Syria has descended into mass murder, with over 30,000 dead and widespread displacement, hunger and misery. His hands have been tied by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the Security Council, to be sure. Nor would it be a good idea for the US to intervene with boots on the ground or by giving weaponry to the ragtag Free Syrian Army. But had he wanted to act more decisively on Syria, short of going to war, the president surely could have. Even just finding ways to get humanitarian aid in to starving Syrians would make a difference. (The current levels of US humanitarian aid are small and the delivery methods uncertain). They say that Bill Clinton has profound regrets over letting the Rwanda genocide proceed unhindered. Obama’s neglect of Syria, I fear, is likely to haunt him, and to haunt us all.

6. Obama should move the headquarters of the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain to some other port in the Gulf, and should speak out forcefully against the repressiveness of the Sunni monarchy against the Shiite majority in Bahrain. It is shameful for the US to have to depend on a government that is acting like a sordid little police state. It has just actually sentenced physicians to long prison terms for simply treating wounded rebels. That is the act of a petulant tyrant, and the US should dissociate itself from him.

7. Obama’s deployment of drones in northern Pakistan and in Yemen and Somalia is deeply problematic. It has no real legal framework. It is classified and often run by CIA civilians, and so cannot be properly debated in an open, democratic way. Obama has claimed the prerogative of assassinating people by drone, and has even killed American citizens. Although some members of Congress are briefed on the program, it is too secretive and too far outside the realm of the rule of law to be compatible with the US constitution. Worse the drone strikes are probably politically counterproductive. Where the US hits again quickly after an initial strike, killing rescue workers, it is probably committing a war crime.

The Obama administration has done a fair job of navigating through the shoals of the Arab Spring. He should have called for Hosni Mubarak to step down much earlier than he did. But that was not a disaster, and neither are US relations with post-revolutionary Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. The US has good relations with the government of Hamadi Jabali in Tunisia. Obama called for Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in Yemen from June of 2011. In general, Obama has done no harm, in the face of mass popular movements that changed the face of the region. The withdrawal from Iraq was necessary by the terms of the agreement Bush reached with the Iraqi parliament, and while Iraq will have problems for a long time, at least US troops are not fighting and dying there. There haven’t been big breakthroughs or successes with the possible exception of the nullification of Usamah Bin Laden, but also no major disasters and quagmires (Afghanistan is not a quagmire because Obama has announced he is getting out in 2014 no matter what).

45 Responses

  1. would have been a great year for a democrat with guts to run against obama in the primaries … though, of course, that would imply that politics actually involved choice.

    • No, what it implies is that there is a segment of anti-Obama Democrats larger than the cast of Friends.

      Is your goal to see how small a decimal the New York Times will print on its front page?

  2. Dear Professor Cole

    “Even just finding ways to get humanitarian aid in to starving Syrians would make a difference.”

    Thank you for raising the profile of the prospect of Stavation and Famine in Syria.

    World Food Program’s report on the situation seems to have fallen down a crack. This is particularly important for families in the countryside who face the prospect of starvation in the next few months as the crops rot in the fields, for lack of labour to gather them.

    link to wfp.org

    Rising food prices on world markets due to drought and failed monsoon and the difficulties of buying food due to sanctions have the possibility of turning this into a “Perfect Storm”

    This situation is reminiscent of the obscenity that was the Biafra Civil war where a million died becasue of deadlocked geopolitics and it is beginning to look as if the Churches are the only ones who will have the will and contacts to do anything about it.

    Jesuit Refugee Service is running soup kitchens in Aleppo Homs and Damascus for all in need.

    link to jrs.net

    “Aleppo. According to JRS in Damascus, communications with the city of Aleppo is at best intermittent. Internet and mobile phones have been offline since Aug 1st. Acute shortages of basic commodities include flour, gas and petrol, while electricity cuts last for several hours a day”.

  3. “Obama is preventing Iranian banks from interfacing with their counterparts and making it hard for other countries to pay Iran for the petroleum they buy from it.”

    The blowback from that policy is to show the US controls the banking system and can attempt to throttle any other nation’s trade at any time. That is a threat hanging over many other nations and if Iran can find alternatives to a US controlled system, other nations would be wise to partly follow Iran’s lead. Perhaps China could step up to provide finance for international trade.

  4. Too much apologizing:
    “he was stymied when Kadima Party leader Tzippi Livni failed to attract enough coalition partners to form a government”;
    “he was boxed in” by Petreus.
    Obama as victim: a hard sell.

  5. (the Japanese had a choice of becoming a normal country or trying to keep their empire, and in the latter case the generals believed they had to take the Dutch East Indies for its petroleum, instead, and so had to neutralize the US pacific fleet).

    Well, no. The Japanese had a vast array of choices — play for time, erect a coal to oil program (as advocated by the natl res minister), leave China (not give up the Empire, they still would have held Taiwan, Okinawa, and Manchuria), etc. The emperor and the military wanted war. Note that they might have not needed even to leave China — the oil move by the US occurred because Japan invaded the territory of a western state. The US was happy to ignore Japan’s adventures in China.

    Michael

    • They considered China the core of the empire, and intended to keep it. Roosevelt explicitly wanted them out.

  6. Great summary, thankyou.

    at the end you write:

    “Afghanistan is not a quagmire because Obama has announced he is getting out in 2014 no matter what)”

    On “Democracy Now” yesterday this was said by Phyllis Bennis, fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies

    “What we need to worry about is that what the Obama administration is saying it plans for the end of 2014 is not the withdrawal of all troops and all U.S. paid mercenaries, as we saw in Iraq, when the U.S. was forced out.

    This time around, we’re hearing what we originally heard about Iraq: we’re going to withdraw the combat troops, meaning we will keep in place the trainers—they’re the ones that are being killed in the largest numbers

    we will keep in place the CIA, we will keep in place Special Forces, and we don’t know how many thousands of troops that may mean. There are now 100,000 U.S. paid contractors operating in Iraq, along with 40,000 other NATO troops. Nothing is being said about the contractors”

    • There is nowhere near 100,000 U.S. paid contractors in Iraq. You are off by a factor of 8-10. Nor are there 40,000 NATO troops in Iraq.

      Where are you getting this stuff?

      • Joe, you might want to take a look at this site, re # of contractors. Looks like 117,000+, and projections are that this is a great area of economic growth and opportunity. link to dangerzonejobs.com\

        The cool part is the pay rates, especially compared to GIs doing the same work. A little danger, but hey, that spices life right up! and if you kill a “wog” for whatever reason, hey, a little blood money and all is well, right?

        Way past time to have pulled our _ick out of that ugly crack… But then of course there are many more waiting for the Troops to come to town, for the Fleet to be in port, all that, and more than enough incompetent, egocentric, revolving-door generals and colonels to oblige with Doctrine and Procurement and Logisticalidociousness to keep the gravy train moving.

        • That is a site about Afghanistan, JT.

          MarkF’s comment was “There are now 100,000 U.S. paid contractors operating in Iraq, along with 40,000 other NATO troops. Nothing is being said about the contractors”

          Ah, I see MarkF has cited the error in a comment below.

          All righty then. Carry on.

  7. “2. Obama accepted the plan of David Petraeus and other Pentagon officers (who, admittedly, boxed him in) for a troop escalation in Afghanistan, combined with an ambitious counter-insurgency program that aimed at pacifying the country ahead of a US withdrawal.”

    This was a huge mistake. Counter-insurgency is just another name for “nation building,” which we have never successfully accomplished. It involves much more than pacifying a country; it also requires a government capable of extending its mandate throughout the country, and that can only be developed organically from within.

    The only successful counter-insurgency program was accomplished by the British in Malaya during the “Malayan Emerency” from 1948 to 1960. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) attempted to develop a following and take control through terrorism. The reason the British were successful was because they were in control and held the levers of power. They were able to field a combined British-Malayan counter-terrorism force that reached a ration of 50 men per every 1,000 of the population. This is the ratio that is recognized today as a prerequisite, if one is to have a chance at defeating an insurgency. We could never field such a force in Afghanistan, even if Afghanistan had a viable government that could extend its mandate throughout the country. The other thing the British did successfully was deprive the Communist-Terrorists of a support base by moving affected sections of the population into “New Towns” that were carefully controlled. By 1957, when Malaya achieved independence, the “Emergency” was well under control, and by 1960, it was declared officially over.

    Vice President Biden was correct in this case. We never should have embarked on counter-insurgency/nation-building in Afghanistan. It was bound to fail. We should have stuck with counter-terrorism, and that’s what we should continue after we withdraw. We should use our entire array of intelligence collection capabilities to determine the threats; and we should deploy the necessary means–Drones, Special Ops Teams, and other means–to neutralize and take out any developing threats, including those who are behind them.

    • Did the British efforts matter? Is Malaya part of the British Empire? It was a victory without consequence. Did the French victory in Algeria matter? Algeria and Malaya like Kenya were going to get independence anyway, the British Empire was through. The French Empire was through. The British fought to preserve empire, not for colonial independence. There is a famous Winston Churchill quote: “I have not become the Kings First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” The British were living in the past.

      • “Did the British efforts matter?”

        You bet the Bitish efforts mattered. Had they failed, Malaya would have turned out far differently than it did. As it was, Malaya (today’s Malaysia) was able to achieve independence with British-built institutions intact: A good judicial system; a good economic base; a mixed (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) ethnic population that, while not in perfect harmony, at least has managed to work together pretty well.

        You state, “It was a victory without consequence.” This demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge and understanding of what the stakes were. Had the victory not been achieved, and had the MCP and Communists taken over, Malaya would have been a very different country than it was, or is. “A victory without consequence” indeed!

        • I guess Vietnam, “taken over by the Communists” after the failed US intervention there, for which “we” are still paying a large price, as are the Agent-Oranged, Arc Lighted and cluster-bombed “gooks,” has become a “very different country than it was, or is.” Is that a tautology? And is that why the shirts and slacks I buy at Walmart are labeled “made in Vietnam,” or why the US Navy conducts joint naval maneuvers with Vietnam’s Navy? Or why Vietnam is now a “most favored nation,” with all the secret complexities that implies? link to policyarchive.org

          The dominoes fell, weakened and tipped by Great Gamers, but gee, out of the bone pile come various Asian Tigers…

        • “I guess Vietnam, “taken over by the Communists” after the failed US intervention there, for which “we” are still paying a large price, as are the Agent-Oranged, Arc Lighted and cluster-bombed “gooks,” has become a “very different country than it was, or is.”

          Apparently you did not notice that the example of a successful counter-insurgency campaign was the British in Malaya, not the Americans in Vietnam, eh, Mr. McPhee?

      • In both Malaya and Kenya we had already decided to leave, the objective was to leave without an immediate bloodbath. This was accomplished. The Churchill quote is highly misleading, by the 1930s Churchill was the only significant figure in Britain opposed to Indian independence in the near future. That might have been true of him but that was not representative of British attitudes.

      • Compare the way the British left India with the way it left Malaya. The hurried, careless way it left India contributed to the horrendous violence of the Partition. Also, look at the mess that followed Britain’s exit from the Middle East. Apparently, Malaya was lucky that the Brits stayed on as long as the did.

  8. Surely the Israelis are dictating US policy on Syria. What do they want? Do they view Assad as the best of all possible (bad) outcomes?

    • More like China and Russia – the Syrian regime under Assad has been an important regional ally, especially for Russia. Since both nations have significant influence as well as UN security council vetoes, US options are very, very limited.

  9. Having listened to Obama’s Cairo speech (2009??), I think his heart is in the right place, BUT he’s been running for re election and probably figures he cannot win if he angers the Israel Lobby too much. [I think the Israel Lobby’s long term power in DC — essentially dictating US Middle East policy for years — is VERY dangerous for the US). In addition, he has had his hands tied by obstructionist Republicans in congress. And I figure he’s been much pre occupied with trying to get a recovery going during this depression. I am hopeful that he can seize on opportunities in his second term without having to worry about re election.

  10. Viz. point 2 above, there are also in Afghanistan no significant insurgent groups willing to allow themselves to be bought off, as the Americans bought off many Sunni rebels via the “Awakening” plan. Paying Iraqi guerrillas not to fight us was the key to tamping down Iraq, from an American perspective.

    • Re paying guerrillas not to fight, there’s the war as presented on TV and other MSM outlets, that gritty shoot-out between Our Brave Troops and The Evil TalibalQuaeda, the Manichaean contest that grips the imaginations of the few of “us” who still pay any attention, and then there’s the real war, of corruption and bribery and contractor theft and fraud and (opium) and all the other stuff.

      And yes, “we” have paid whatever you want to call semi-organized, mercurial-loyalty, profit-seeking bunches of armed men in Afghanistan not to shoot at “us.” One little link, out of many that report on the practice: link to liveleak.com Maybe not on the “Awakening” scale, but nearly a half a billion is almost beyond the edge of “chump change.”

      How the real details do vary so, from the Simple Narrative…

  11. “No president could have done much to prevent such a sudden terrorist attack, and the fog of war would always prevent an exact understanding of the events for a period after such an attack.”

    Why didn’t we have Marines guarding the Benghazi consulate? Would that have made a difference? Was that the ambassador’s call?

  12. Just curious, re #4 — why do so many folks think training up a military and police force are the best ways to, I guess, “improve” countries and their populations in so many different situations (Libya, Notagainistan, Iraq, all those little Central American Banana Republics, sub-Saharan Africa, you-name-it)? Is that hammer the only tool in the toolbox? (Institutionally, I bet the momentum and inertia of our Ship of State, the whole MIC/state security apparatus, pretty much insure that will be the only one…)

    The dynamics of the modern militarization and police-ification process sure seem to trend more toward internal economic hegemony of the Generals and Colonels, and of course increasingly oppressive “state security,” like the Egyptian/Myanmar/et too many cetera examples, than the kind of rule-of-law-ing and redirection of the martial and violent impulses and regulation and co-opting, if not suppression, of “militants” and “insurgents.”

    The “policy” of creating police and military forces on a national scale, at least as implemented by Our Fearless Leaders, seems mostly to have benefited contractors and institutionalized and frozen tribal and sectarian divides, far from the melting pot and shining example of democratization that we are told the New Cops and Army will inevitably be. The messes we see sure seem to be an inevitable outcome, from the futile attempt to manufacture a “strong central government” that “we can do business with.”

    If the model produces the same stupid and futile result in case after case, why not try something else? It’s not like there aren’t people with insight into places like Afghanistan, the dynamics of the groupings and interests and behaviors, who see better ways to bow out gracefully without doing still more harm to the people there and to ourselves…

  13. On Iran. Yes, hard sanctions lead to war. With Japan, both sanctions and war were just, Japan and Nazi Germany were allies. With Iran it is completely different. But once you recognize Bush’s Axis of Evil and take regime change in Iran a right goal, sanctions and war become basically inevitable.

    On Libya. Once you consider regime change in Libya as a right goal, all the rest is splitting hair.

    On Syria. Again, if regime change is a goal, then sanctions, special ops and open war are the only way to go.

    On Pakistani drones. Ground war with Pakistan is impossible and without Pakistan not much can be done in Afghanistan. What remains is special ops and drone attacks.

  14. Interestingly, among the Western countries it is Canada that wants war with Iran most of all. Canada is worried about the recent rise in US domestic energy production, and needs a major world energy crisis, such as that caused by a Middle Eastern war, to maintain demand for Canada’s high-cost tar sand output. Canada’s economy has never been so dependent upon energy exports, and a peaceful Middle East in which Iraq and Iran could return to peak production would cause a severe recession in Canada.

  15. As to drone deployment set forth at Section 7 above:

    Agreed. Legally and politically drone strikes are improper and counter-productive.

    Israel’s occupation of Gaza and targeted killings by helicopter attacks were fueled by the fact many Israeli soldiers were being shot after trying to arrest suspected militants in apartment complexes. Legal processes were too dangerous and helicopter-based missiles were used based upon guidelines by the Israeli Attorney General. These missile strikes saved the lives of IDF soldiers – at the cost of the lives of innocent Palestinian civilians and adherence to the principles of international law.

    Drone strikes save American lives, as well. That same logic – cutting legal corners to save American servicemen’s lives was employed most forcefully to justify the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs despite the deaths of thousands of innocent men, womwn and children are acceptable.

    War crimes and crimes against humanity are irrelevant if there is no international body to prosecute. Why should U.S. intelligence or the IDF care if their operatives will never be held legally accountable?

    The price America and Israel politically pay for their conduct is scorn and contempt from the international community and the inhabitants of areas victimized by this dubious process of targeted killings and an increase in the overall cycle of violence.

    • To compare the American and Israeli situations requires one to equate the Palestinians with al Qaeda.

      It also requires you to ignore the legal (recognized by both international and domestic law, declared by Congress) between the U.S. and al Qaeda.

    • Did nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki increase the cycle of violence? Did this massive violence create a lot of Japanese terrorists? What was the blowback?
      Overwhelming violence may be immoral, but if your goal is to wipe out an enemy , violence is not always counterproductive.

  16. Refusing to waste his presidency on the hopeless task of getting the contemporary Israeli leadership to make peace doesn’t seem like a mistake to me. It seems like a pretty reasonable call.

    It’s tough to say that Obama made a mistake using sanctions against Iran to deflect the push for war, since he has successfully deflected that push, which was his goal. Your claims are that this “might” result in something. Well, let’s hold off on calling it a mistake until there is something other than the successful accomplishment of the goal you identified – resisting the push for war – to point to.

    I don’t understand #4. Yes, Libya is having trouble getting its state up and running. How is that Obama’s mistake? You don’t spell out anything he did, or didn’t do, that he should have handled otherwise.

    Ditto with Syria. You’re very vague about what he should have done instead – and for good reason! You don’t know what the right move would have been, I don’t know, Hillary Clinton doesn’t know, and neither does anyone else.

    What other “port in the Gulf” features a government better than Bahrain’s? What other “port in the Gulf” would have welcomed an American naval base? I’m all ears.

    And the decimation of al Qaeda through the drone program is perhaps the greatest success in American foreign policy in decades.

    • “And the decimation of al Qaeda thorough the drone program is perhaps the greatest success in American foreign policy in decades.”

      Members of the U.S. military leadership have not utilized drones and have been critical of the program of firing missiles into a building where civilian deaths may occur as “collateral damage”.

      There was factory production of war materiel at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that supported those cities being aerial bombardment targets, however there was no legal way to incinerate thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians without running afoul of established conventions of warfare. Admiral Nimitz and Gen. MacArthur – two men who argued over straategy incesssantly – had grave concerns over the propriety of the use of the A-bomb over Japan as employed given civilian casualties.

      Same situation here. Indisputably, a lot of collateral damage to civilians and the targets themselves are decided with little or no credible confirmation.

      • Your comparison is ludicrous. The vast majority of those killed in Hiroshima – upwards of 90% were civilians.

        Even the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that Professor Cole links to – a strongly anti-drone source, which puts out numbers for the purpose of arguing against their usages – postulates that civilian deaths represent 1/4-1/3 at the highest end.

    • It really does get to be a matter of how Obama has worked with the trade-offs of really difficult situations. Its what being a (good) politician is about. He might’ve somehow done better, but it is far easier to see how he could’ve done far, far worse. Think Bush II.

      #1 and #2 I’d chalk up to his inexperience. #3 is the nasty price he’s playing to keep Israel, and more importantly The Lobby, sufficiently off his back for the time being. We could wish he would’ve done something different, but domestic politics are in play. Should he win, it won’t be any landslide; but then, who knows what’ll happen as The Mitt comes down the stretch and senses he might loose. The guy scares me more and more.

      What’s more disturbing about Obama is his use of “Executive Authority” to have people, including US citizens, killed. It’s a reach motivated by the apparent needs of ME politics, and its a especially pernicious development more troubling in its ongoing ramifications than this other stuff.

      • A slight correction, Travis: Obama does not cite, as Bush did, “executive authority” to conduct drone strikes or otherwise “have people killed,” but bases his authority on the Force Authorization passed by Congress.

        Also, the strikes against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Haqqanni network have come at a great cost to our “Middle Eastern politics.” They have greatly strained our relations with Pakistan and Yemen, and unquestionably harmed our standing among the public in the region. Indeed, that is the strongest argument against them – that our other foreign policy goals in the region should outweigh the security interest we have in destroying al Qaeda (or, at least, that they do at this point, with al Qaeda already so weakened).

    • “And the decimation of al Qaeda through the drone program is perhaps the greatest success in American foreign policy in decades.”

      Spot on, Joe from Lowell. The drone program directed against Al-Qaeda, and associated militant and terrorist leaders and operatives, has been a brilliant tactical success. It has greatly degraded the leadership of these organizations, a leadership that is much harder to replace than ordinary foot soldiers.

      That the leadership of these groups of Unlawful Enemy Combatants hides and operates among civilians does put those civilians at risk, and any resulting collateral damage lies upon the heads of that leadership. On the whole, though, the drone program has been carefully managed and collateral damage minimized.

      • Bullshit. Have you counted how many “number twos” the US has claimed to have killed? The al-Qaeda leadership is obviously easily replaced.

        We’ve found tout that al-Qaeda was not defined by its leadership, but was a headless organization of guerrillas with spontaneous grassroots organization. The US has pretty much assisted the organization of that sort of terrorist group, by terrorizing civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

      • The most important way Obama has minimized casualties, Bill, has been his redefinition of our efforts from a “War on Terror,” shrinking it down to a war against al Qaeda.

        The drone program directed against Al-Qaeda, and associated militant and terrorist leaders and operatives, has been a brilliant tactical success. It has greatly degraded the leadership of these organizations, a leadership that is much harder to replace than ordinary foot soldiers.

        Yes. Yes, it has. So…now what? We can’t keep doing this forever.

        That the leadership of these groups of Unlawful Enemy Combatants hides and operates among civilians does put those civilians at risk, and any resulting collateral damage lies upon the heads of that leadership.

        Too far! Even if a perfectly-appropriate enemy is hiding among civilians, Geneva still requires that every effort be made to avoid civilian casualties. The drone program has (at least under this President) been carefully managed towards that end, but that is the requirement of international law.

    • “And the decimation of al Qaeda through the drone program is perhaps the greatest success in American foreign policy in decades.”

      It certainly has been a tactical success, and it has resulted in fewer civilian casualties than a bombing campaign would have.

    • Base the Fleet in India. There’s no reason the US should have ships in the Persian Gulf, though we might need them in the Indian Ocean.

  17. RE: “Obama accepted the plan of David Petraeus and other Pentagon officers (who, admittedly, boxed him in) for a troop escalation in Afghanistan..”

    Please explain and speculate what his behavior suggests about his future decisions.

    • Not much. He withdrew the troops from Iraq against the desires of the military brass, abandoning the bases from which they had planned to “project power throughout the region.” Ditto the missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Ditto getting involved in Libya. Ditto refusing to use more force there once we did become involved. Ditto ending the F-22 program. Ditto including, and sticking to, the military cuts in the debt ceiling deal. Ditto announcing a timeline up front for the surge and drawdown in Afghanistan.

      On all of these matters, and more, Obama crossed the military leadership, uniform and civilian, including in several instances his own Secretary of Defense and Direction of Central Intelligence. If you believe the line that his Afghan policy represented a cave, as opposed to his actual preference, then that decision stands out as an exception to the general pattern.

  18. I have stopped paying attention to what the US government does internationally. It seems to me to be in the situation of the Brezhnev government of the USSR: able to stagger around and cause lots of trouble, but institutionally incapable of having any lasting international impact.

    When watching international affairs, the thing to pay attention to is what the “live” actors are doing — the ones who aren’t hemmed in by a giant bureaucracy of habit and a legislature of gridlock driving them inevitably towards their doom.

    I am very curious as to what Turkey is going to do.

  19. I’m beginning to think that Obama’s problem is that he’s too old — mentally. He’s thinking in old paradigms and has been unable to adjust to the world we now live in. So he’s doing his best — but (for example) he thinks of Israeli-Arab peace, where a modern person would think about containing the threat of insane Israeli governments. There are better domestic examples — thinking of the Republicans as a legitimate political party when in fact the Republicans have degenerated into a fascist organization trying to overthrow elected government.

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