Obama in Israel…At Last

As I discussed on Arise TV last night, Air Force One touched down in Tel Aviv yesterday following a 6,000-mile flight from Andrews Air Force Base bearing America’s most pampered tourist. Israel will close its airspace for his arrival and maintain this lock-down whilst he takes a ride in Marine One to Jerusalem, providing Obama with the sort of visual appreciation of Israel that few tourists will ever experience.

During his arrival and hop to the nation’s capital, Obama may get to appreciate the physical scale of the nation, dwarfed by most, if not quite all, of America’s 50 individual states. He may take a moment to wonder at the events and tribulations that have transpired on the land beneath him as he glides serenely through its skies.

Travelling in his security bubble, it is likely to be the one opportunity he gets to really see the land and appreciate its precarious position. He will certainly be reminded of this in talks with Israeli leaders in the coming hours, for that is the duration that this trip can be measured in. When he arrives he will discover that the advance staff at the White House either have a macabre sense of history or else none whatsoever as they have chosen to take over the King David Hotel for the president’s duration. It is not a location that bodes well for visiting members of an unloved foreign power.

On his long flight, Obama may have been advised to watch The Gatekeepers, the Oscar nominated documentary featuring 6 former leaders of Israeli security service Shin Bet, who speak candidly and openly about the failings that have impeded the quest for peace. During the flight, Obama will no doubt have given thought to his imminent meeting with Netanyahu and how the two of them will deal with one another in the coming years. This will be the tenth meeting between the two men and despite the lack of chemistry no leader has met Obama more.  Since both have newly minted mandates, they will doubtless both claim to be in the right, which may get both of them nowhere.

The White House has announced that the American entourage are arriving in the Holy Land in ‘listening mode.’ This is an inauspicious announcement with an inauspicious precedent. Twenty years ago, America’s least memorable Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, marked his first trip to Europe with the same tepid line. It does not inspire confidence or any sense of leadership, quite the opposite in fact. This approach has led to a peculiar position for Obama. Machiavelli questioned whether a leader should be loved or feared. Right now, Obama is neither and his leverage will only decrease as time passes. The 2014 midterms are a little over 18 months away and after that all eyes turn to the presidential race of 2016. Obama, therefore, has only a short time to act before his transformation to a lame duck is complete.

For this trip to have been capable of achieving anything, a great deal of legwork would have already have been done by dignitaries, diplomats and officials. They would have prepared plans for the two leaders to finalise and agree terms upon. This has not been done. Indeed, the Obama White House appears to be turning diplomacy on its head by having the president visit ahead of a return trip by Secretary of State Kerry! This is not how successful diplomacy or international negotiations have traditionally succeeded, and demonstrates a lack of commitment by the administration to securing a long term solution in the region. Having believed he could personally deliver a solution in his first year in office, it appears that Obama is now merely paying lip service to the idea of a solution. His trip to Israel allows him to tick the country off his list and claim that he has continued the recent history of American presidents making the journey, all to little effect other than that of symbolism, which has as much to do with domestic constituents, as it has to do with international relations.

In his first term Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is unfortunate that at the start of his second term, he appears not to be willing to earn such a prestigious award.

The U.S. National Interest and the Falkland Debate

This week has seen the wonder of democracy at work with a ballot held on the Falkland Islands in regard to their continued status as a British territory. You may have heard that they voted overwhelming in favour! Notwithstanding that a vote so heavily slanted in one direction would have raised eyebrows in any number of countries, the vote was a clear and unequivocal rejection of any entities from Argentina.

In the midst of the simmering row between London and Buenos Aires, however, a third party has been widely critiqued for its efforts to remain neutral: the United States of America. The White House reaction to the vote has been tepid at best and downright insulting to British interests, to say nothing of what it says about the state of the Special Relationship. Certainly Downing Street and the FCO will be extremely disappointed by the derisory reaction that emanates from a nation that has repeatedly placed democratic promotion at the heart of its foreign policy. Judging by the wording, however, this will have been written by a bureaucrat, not a political appointee at the State Department.

It is clear that some of this criticism can be dismissed as politically motivated nonsense by those seeking any reason to attack this particular White House as long as it is occupied by Barack Obama, who has proved to be a particularly ineffectual president in terms of foreign policy. Some criticism can also be dismissed as the typical carping of European anti-American intellectualism, happy to sleep easy under the military security that America provides, whilst spending every waking hour criticising the manner in which they do so. However, it is important to consider a third rationale: Ignorance about the manner in which nations adopt stances on the international stage coupled with a flawed appreciation of history and geography.

First up is the problem of the Monroe Doctrine that commits the United States to a defence of Western hemispheric powers against European colonial interference. It may be a little outdated, but it is still worth bearing in mind that a strict adherence to this document would place the United States squarely behind Argentinean claims to the islands.

Doubtless there will be those who put American neutrality down to apparent anti-colonial sentiment as personified by Obama, eager to pivot to the Pacific and opposed to the ‘evil’ British due to our history of imperial conquest. To those who think this is impacting the current situation, I say merely “Wake Up.” This is not how decisions are made at a national, strategic level. Neither is this a ‘Democratic’ problem, a fact revealed by an appreciation of history. Lest anyone think that things would be different with a Republican in the White House, consider what happened in 1982.

When diplomatic niceties broke down between London and Buenos Aires in the 1980s the Reagan Administration singularly failed to ride to the defence of the UK, leading to similar claims in regard to the status and relative importance of the Special Relationship. The president was adamant that the United States was intent on maintaining good relations with both the UK and Argentina, whilst his Ambassador to the United Nations, neo-conservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick was adamantly pro-Argentinean to the point that the British Ambassador referred to her as “more fool that fascist.” Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig was perceived to be pro-British, causing a public rift in the administration that ended only when President Reagan ordered Kirkpatrick to vote against her personal wishes in favour of the UK at the United Nations.

Eventually, the Americans came though and were instrumental in ensuring British military victory in the South Atlantic, providing state of the art missile technology, satellite feeds and, as revealed recently under the thirty year rule, offering to provide an aircraft carrier.

At this point in time the Obama Administration finds itself in the initial stages of a spat between two allies, just as Reagan did in the 1980s. Like Reagan, Obama will do his best to stay out of the situation and remain neutral hoping nothing serious develops. Only when push comes to shove will he break one way or the other. That is not unexpected; it is what nations do. Right now, it serves no American purpose to do otherwise. Nations act for one purpose and one purpose only, when it is in their National Interest. Right now, it is not in America’s National Interest to choose sides because it doesn’t need to. We in the UK might not like this, and it certainly doesn’t place Obama in a favourable light, but fence sitting is standard diplomatic practice.

The saving grace in this situation is that precedent is on the side of the British. The Americans prevaricated before, and they are doing so again. Now, as then, I expect that they will come to aid the UK if, and only if, it becomes necessary to do so. As Sir Winston Churchill, an ardent admirer of the United States and himself half-American, put it so well; “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

Obama’s Journey To The Dark Side

In the 2008 presidential election, the Democratic Party candidate was eager to exploit a speech he had made 6 years earlier in Chicago, in which he lambasted the administration of George W. Bush and its ‘armchair, weekend warriors,’ determined to ‘shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost.’ The state senator utilized a rhetorical device he had been building toward, repeatedly challenging, “You want a fight, President Bush?” before listing a series of priorities that risked being overlooked following an invasion of Iraq: the fight with bin Laden and al Qaeda; the need to allow U.N. weapons inspectors to do their work; the need to find peace in the Middle East and the development of a new energy policy.  The candidate’s true stance on the war, however, might be gleaned from an unguarded moment during the 2004 Democratic National Convention at which he sprang to national prominence. As noted by Heilemann and Halperin in their 2010 text Game Change, he remarked “there’s not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush’s position at this stage.” The longer Barack Obama is president, the more evident this remark becomes.

This week has witnessed a remarkable turn of events as the Obama administration has been forced to release a legal finding that has, quite literally, granted the president the power of life and death over seemingly all humanity. Whilst it has long been apparent that the U.S. was willing to engage in an increasingly robust use of drone strikes against an ever-increasing number of foreign-born targets, there was a sense that even Obama was bound by the Constitution that granted due process to American citizens. However, this may no longer be the case, although one imagines that the Supreme Court may well end up issuing a ruling on the subject. In a document released by the Justice Department, a key right guaranteed to Americans appears to have been removed, provoking outrage, though not necessarily from the obvious location. Remarkably, the American right, not the left, is leading protests; the Libertarians, not the ACLU, which is telling in itself.

With drones being referred to by Senator Diane Feinstein as ‘the perfect assassination tool’ it is no surprise that their use has expanded rapidly as the White House seeks to reduce cost and increase efficiency, whilst simultaneously withdrawing troops and maintaining a credible posture against her perceived enemies throughout the world.   Indeed the evolution of drones parallels the evolution of Obama: What began as a rather benign platform designed merely to offer a surveillance tool has become the latest vehicle of devastation delivering death from the skies. Similarly, the man who campaigned as the anti-Bush in 2008 now appears to be determined to out-do his predecessor and comes equipped with an equally complicit Attorney General.

Much was made of the legal rulings relating to the prosecution of the war on terror issued by the Justice Department under George W. Bush. The findings of John Yoo came in for particular scrutiny. This week, however, has seen the release of a legal ruling that goes far beyond anything that was issued whilst George W. Bush was president. In response to demands from Congress and in particular the filibuster by Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder has released a letter detailing the president’s authority to use drone strikes against American citizens, potentially on American soil. This potentially opens the way for drones to patrol American boarders, armed not only with surveillance equipment, but also with more lethal cargo designed to prevent further illegal immigration. Drones are already being used as surveillance tools so their development in this direction for domestic use is hardly a leap.

The issue speaks directly to a fundamental problem in regard to the relationship between the Justice Department and the White House. The president gets to appoint America’s chief law official, who then becomes beholden to the chief executive for his very livelihood. In the United States, officials serve at the pleasure of the president and whilst removing an Attorney General is not something a president would do lightly, it is hardly unheard of. The problems in this relationship become compounded when the president appoints a friend to the job, as is the case with Eric Holder, since it further blurs the boundaries of responsibility and accountability.

Throughout Obama’s first term, Holder was a lightening rod for opponents of the administration’s efforts to process the legal aspect of the war on terror. From closing the Guantanamo Bay prison facility to holding trials for those charged with terrorist activity, Holder was required to advise the president and on issue after issue ran into serious opposition from Congress that forced the administration to capitulate. That Holder survived the first term was nothing less than miraculous. That he retuned in the second term is even more remarkable. However, whatever controversies he thought he had faced in the first term will pale into insignificance compared to the firestorm that threatens to erupt over the legal finding released this week that appear to contradict the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Holder’s subsequent efforts to walk back this position will only add to the confusion and again are reminiscent of his constant manoeuvring in the first term.

The legal wrangling affects not only American citizens but the wider international community and the attempted extension of United States’ laws into the international domain is an area for increasing concern. It has been extended to cover Canada in relation to pollution and with the expansion of drone bases in Africa, the seemingly unstoppable Americanisation of global justice continues apace. The continuation of America’s epic struggle with the forces of political violence, over a decade after 9/11, presents a whole series of challenges to international law and to the international community. The world is becoming beholden to American justice but without a say in its development in an odd twist of history: The United States came into being once citizens in the American colonies became tired of taxation without representation. Today, much of the world is beginning to feel like an American colony, beholden to U.S. policy but without any role in its development. Is it time to say, “No assassination without representation”?

Republicans are displaying their outrage at this decision and raising issues of due process. They have a valid point. But they are also partly to blame for the dénouement that they have left the administration in. Obama has been unable to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility due to Congressional resistance. The camp is politically unwelcome but neither can it be closed. Prisoners cannot now be relocated to Super-Max prisons in the United States and no other country is scrambling to accept them either. They remain in continued legal limbo. Having been placed in an effective checkmate over the whole idea of prisoners, the White House will not feel inclined to add to a list of inmates. No wonder, therefore, that the debate over Kill or Capture is being won by proponents of the former rather than the latter.

This all comes about in the same week that the Senate voted to confirm John Brennan as DCI. Brennan has spent the first term as Obama’s chief counter-terrorism tsar and has been a chief advocate of drone technology. His move to Langley could signal that the agency continues to play a large role in the use and control of such technology in the foreseeable future.

As Obama moves to secure his foreign policy team for his second term, he does so in the knowledge that he is now beyond the will of the American electorate. Never again will he be required to place his name on a ballot and seek approval for his policies or actions. Rather, it is now his legacy that is at stake, and in this turn of events, it appears that his journey to the Dark Side is Complete.