JDB on Radio, Television and the Papers: All in One Day

Friday August 30 was something of a blur frankly. In the course of 12 hours I seemed to do nothing but speak to a series of microphones offering thoughts on the vote in parliament, its potential impact on the US-UK relationship and on military options in Syria.

I have collated my work from that day on this screen so click away on the orange links to see analysis I provided on this contentious subject:

 

 

 

Which Way Now? The US/UK Dilemma Over Syria

A year ago, at the height of the 2012 US presidential election, reports emerged alleging the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The reports were sketchy but they appeared to suggest the use of WMD by the Assad regime against Syrian civilians. The event sparked debate in the international community over the best form of response. Speaking extemporaneously, President Obama issued his now famed ‘red line’ remark. Despite this, no response was forthcoming from the United States or any other western power. In the months that followed, the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked and the ambassador, along with others, was murdered. To date, there has been no US retaliation beyond mere rhetorical outrage and verbal warnings.

President Obama clearly does not seek international adventurism, having campaigned with a pledge to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and re-engage with the Middle East. However, neither does he wish to be remembered as a president who stood aside in the face of slaughter. The White House reports that it is committed to finding a diplomatic solution in Syria, but is clearly preparing to launch a military response. Obama’s ‘red line’ remark inadvertently painted himself, the White House & the international community into a corner, from which it has unsuccessfully sought to emerge. Having pledged action in the face of evidence it has repeatedly sought to downplay atrocities.

It appears clear that the second term Obama administration’s new foreign policy team, including Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, are having an impact. These new personalities are clearly bringing their different perspectives to bear on Obama, as revealed by his public announcements. There is, however, no public appetite for action in Syria. A Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed just 9% support for intervention in Syria, with 60% opposed. This is the lowest support ever recorded ahead of US overseas military action and reveals that intervention in Syria is even less popular among American than Congress. It’s that unpopular an idea! To place these figures in context, 47 % supported US intervention in Libya in 2011, which was consider low at the time; 76% of American supported the Iraq War, and 90 % supported Afghanistan in 2001; 46% supported NATO military action in Kosovo in 1999. To intervene now, therefore, would contravene a key element of the Powell Doctrine.

The Obama administration has revealed that it will publish an Intelligence report by the end of the week detailing the August 21 attack. However, its contents have already been revealed and pre-judged by everyone, including the president and vice president, in a clear repeat of events that led to the use of force against Iraq and as Mervyn King of Kings College London has stated, we need to wait for UN Weapons inspectors to report their findings. Just as in Iraq, both the US and the UK are racing to initiate military action ahead of official reports that they had sought to initiate.

Incredibly, the actions of Ed Miliband have had a dramatic impact on the plans to initiate a missile strike this week and have produced a vitriolic response from the UK Foreign Office. A narrow window of opportunity existed that would have permitted US-UK military action ahead of President Obama’s departure for Stockholm next week and his ensuing presence at the G20 in St. Petersburg. Ed Miliband’s 180-degree turn on support for military intervention has ensured that this window is rapidly closing as the PM looks unable to muster Parliamentary support for military intervention ahead of any reports from the UN inspectors. Having recalled Parliament, Cameron appears unable to push through a measure that would permit military action, with dissent coming from both his own backbenches as well as the Opposing Party.

This leaves Obama, and Cameron to a lesser degree, politically exposed. Having ramped up the calls for military intervention in the last 4 days, domestic political pressure appears has forced both leaders to back-peddle on previous remarks. This is one thing for Cameron, but quite another for Obama. Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has prevaricated in the face of slaughter in Syria for over a year. He risks initiating military action that commands the support of only 9% of US population, but if he backs down having insisted upon the involvement of the Syrian regime in the WMD attack, he will be faced with a major internal problem.

Here are a few choice quotes that may give a clue as to why this is:

  • ‘American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference…’ (xvii)
  • ‘No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.’ (xxi)
  • ‘American leaders did not act because they did not want to.’ (508)
  • ‘One mechanism for altering the calculus of U.S. leaders would be to make them publicly or professionally accountable for inaction.’ (510)
  • ‘The United States should stop genocide for two reasons. The first and most compelling reason is moral. When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act. It is this belief that motivates most of those who seek intervention.’ (512)

These are not the quotes of a wild-eyed outsider, but of the current US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, drawn from her Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘Problem From Hell.’ Having recruited Power to the administration and promoted her at the start of his second term, how could Obama not be influenced by such thinking? Having accepted a position in an administration, how could Power remain in post if the US did not act? Power referred to the crisis in Rwanda as ‘The Problem from Hell.’ She is, undoubtedly, discovering that governing is a lot harder than it appears from the cheap seats she used to enjoy shouting from in the 1990s…

Obama’s Power Play

This is just a short posting, as the UK Parliament is recalled to debate events in Syria.

Across the Pond, the President has a dilemma. He was elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush but has prevaricated in the face of slaughter in Syria for over a year. Now it appears that an air strike is imminent. So what has brought this about?

Here are a few choice quotes that may give us a clue:

‘American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference…’ (xvii)

‘No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.’ (xxi)

‘Over the course of the last century, the United States has made modest progress in its responses to genocide. The persistence and proliferation of dissenters within the U.S. government and human rights advocates outside it have made a policy of silence in the face of genocide more difficult to sustain.’ (503)

‘ American leaders did not act because they did not want to.’ (508)

‘One mechanism for altering the calculus of U.S. leaders would be to make them publicly or professionally accountable for inaction.’ (510)

‘The United States should stop genocide for two reasons. The first and most compelling reason is moral. When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act. It is this belief that motivates most of those who seek intervention.’ (512)

These are not the quotes of a wild-eyed outsider, but of the current US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, drawn from her Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘Problem From Hell.’

Having recruited Power to the administration and promoted her at the start of his second term, how could Obama not be influenced by such thinking?

Having accepted a position in an administration, how could Power remain in post if the US did not act?

We shall see how both the president and his ambassador respond to the developing situation in the coming days…

George W. Bush’s Third Term Continues…

A year ago, at the height of a campaign for re-election, Barack Obama inadvertently crossed a line. Going off-message and beyond his own agreed upon boundaries, he muttered that chemical weapons use by Syria would represent ‘a red line’ which, if crossed, would result in ramifications.

Ever since, the administration has desperately sought to put that genie back in the bottle and has proved singularly unable to do so. For a president renowned for his rhetorical skills, Obama had once more demonstrated his lack of ability when it came to speaking off the cuff and perhaps revealed the lack of experience that many had raised when he first announced for the presidency after a little more than 2 years in the Senate.

Having made the statement, however, the White House has prevaricated on the issue ever since. Not wishing to get involved in a foreign deployment during the campaign, they hedged and weaved, even in the face of increasing atrocities. Holding statements were issued, as Press Secretary Jay Carney was forced to perform semantic somersaults to continue his justification of in-action in the face of international condemnation.

Even as late as Friday night the president appeared to stake out two positions in a single interview on CNN. Insisting that ‘core national interests’ of the United States were at stake in Syria, while failing to commit to an engagement that he believed could be ‘expensive, difficult and costly…’ (Note the double reference to the financial implications of any intervention?)

The US called for UN weapons inspectors to be granted access to a variety of sites, including the location of the most recent tragedy. After days of prevarication, the Assad regime yielded over the weekend, only for the UN team to come under sniper fire as they sought to investigate the situation.

Having been denied access to the sites for days, governments in Europe and the US downplayed the decision to grant access as being too little, too late. Before the inspector’s could conduct their work, therefore, their efforts were being sullied.

Sound familiar?

Clearly, this weekend, something appears to have changed in Washington.

Secretary of State Kerry has declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons to  be ‘undeniable’ despite the apparent lack of any new evidence and the total lack of time for the UN inspectors to have reported back anything of value. Kerry has spoken of ‘real and…compelling’ evidence that the Assad regime was committing ‘a moral obscenity’ that ‘should shock the conscience of the world.’ But where is the evidence of this?

Clearly deaths have occurred, but what new evidence does the White House have today that it lacked a year ago?  Kerry has announced that President Obama will shortly ‘be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.’ Yet it was apparent a year ago that such incidents were occurring, so what has changed?

If anything, public support has declined. Polls indicate 9% of Americans support intervention, a decline from a figure of 30% only recently. Indeed, a Syrian intervention is even less popular with voters than Congress, not an easy feat to achieve. There is no domestic constituent pushing for intervention and when was the last time you heard reference to a shadowy ‘Syrian Lobby’ on Capitol Hill?

What is at stake here is the Moral Authority of President Obama. Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has proven to be a profound disappointment to liberals who felt he would restore something that had been lost between 2001 and 2009: Moral Leadership.

However, as he expanded drone use, failed to close Gitmo, expanded the war in Afghanistan and failed to respond to atrocities in Syria, he appeared to many to be merely continuing Bus’s policies. His time in office had become, in some circles, Bush’s Third Term.

However, even now, in threatening to intervene, such a parallel continues: An American president using the use of WMD as a pretext for engaging in a Middle East nation, with little to no domestic support and without the approval of the UN Security Council is a scenario all too familiar for those with memories that extend back just ten short years.

George W. Bush found himself caught between Iraq and a hard place due to his own rhetoric. Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner with his red-line remarks. In both cases lives have been lost as a result. All too easily we forget the power of speech and the implications of action and inaction. What happens next in Syria, will reveal the true distinction between the current and the previous occupant of the Oval Office.

Obama and Cameron on the Road to Damascus

During his all too brief time as president, John F. Kennedy was understood to have lamented the difficulty he faced in making the threat of American power credible. ‘The place to do so,’ he speculated, ‘is in Vietnam.’ Whether JFK would have escalated the war as LBJ did is impossible to know. What is all too apparent is that President Obama faces a similar dilemma today in regard to US credibility due to events in Syria.

US prevarication over Syria has raised a series of questions regarding the potential decline of US global influence and in relation to the general competence of the Obama administration. Many of these questions are appropriate, but let us consider for a moment the position of the White House.

The Obama administration came to power on the basis that it was not George W. Bush. Now safely into his second term, Barack Obama does not wish to perpetuate any suggestion that he is merely continuing previous policies, despite the many suggestions to this effect.

The world had grown accustomed to George W. Bush’s cowboy style and rhetoric, even if it didn’t necessarily approve. By way of contrast, Barack Obama’s cool and detached demeanour appears all the more distinct and withdrawn from the passions of the moment and presents the impression of a lack of engagement or emotional commitment, which may well be at odds with reality.

Whatever one makes of the Obama administration, it did not come to office to slay foreign dragons. It has withdrawn from Iraq and is set to complete the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obama, unlike his predecessor, can be accused of being a withdrawer, but not an invader, and he appears content with this position. When military action has been required, such as in the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, he has demonstrated a willingness to act, although this always appears to be the last option and one that is delayed as long as possible. After George W. Bush, seen by many as being too trigger-happy, such a stance may be welcomed. However, it now appears to many that Obama is going too far in the opposite direction to prove his non-Bush credentials.

A similar situation is playing out in Downing Street. David Cameron may have referred to himself as the heir to Blair but he cannot afford for that impression to take hold in regard to military operations of this type. The Prime Minister has overhauled the UK’s national security architecture in a deliberate attempt to prevent decisions involving the deployment of British forces being made on the Downing Street sofa. The new UK National Security Council, with its American name if not necessarily its political or military muscle, is an indication of Cameron’s clear intent to do things differently from Blair. On one level, at least, it seems to be working. No one hears reference to Cameron being Obama’s poodle.

One thing is certain; neither President Obama nor indeed the United States, can afford to use Weapons of Mass Destruction as a pretext for war in another Middle East nation. No wonder, therefore, that the administration is treading carefully. Just as in the early days of the lead up to the war in Iraq, there are in weapons inspectors on the ground seeking access to chemical weapons sites and scenes of atrocities. Getting them to these sites must be a priority. For Assad to deny them access would be seen by many as tantamount to an admiration of guilt that would be very difficult for his allies to justify.

Another challenge for the Obama administration is that this crisis is breaking at the exact time that official Washington is on vacation. Congress is out of town and so is the president, merrily golfing in Massachusetts. Alas, Obama’s protagonists are not waiting for the president and his team to get off the golf courses or the beaches, and are moving ahead with their nefarious plans. This is not to say that the American government is closed for business and we need to be careful not to focus too heavily on the actions of the president. His ambassador to the UN maybe AWOL, but Defence Secretary Hagel has been busy manoeuvring US assets into place should they be required, while Secretary of State Kerry has been quietly engaging in diplomacy to line up key actors should the shooting start. Alas, his second term did not begin well in terms of getting a foreign policy team in place and recent events have done little to inspire confidence.

Whatever happens next, the entire situation bears an uncanny resemblance to events surrounding Bosnia in the 1990s. Then, as now, a Democratic administration in Washington faced intense international criticism for allowing bloodshed to occur. Then, as now, the White House desired United Nations’ approval for military intervention, only to be blocked by Russian vetoes. Ultimately, the Clinton administration tuned to NATO and acted militarily, commencing the move away from the UN and towards a US embrace of NATO as its foreign policy instrument of choice; a journey that began several years before George W. Bush came to power.

A similar situation presents itself to us today. Russian and Chinese intransigence ensures that the UN Security Council will be an unlikely venue in which to resolve this situation. UK Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham believes that the Russians will be moved by the latest images to emerge from Syria, but this is to misunderstand Russia and its motivating factors. No one ever accused the Russians, or indeed Putin, of acting on sentiment. Putin has repeatedly rebuffed US advances throughout Obama’s term in office and recent events surrounding Edward Snowden have not improved matters. Russia will act to advance its national interest and so long as Assad’s Syria remains Russia’s ally in the region, his regime will not lightly be overturned, unlike Mubarak’s in Egypt. Russia, along with Iran, has much to lose with the fall of Assad and is more than capable of blocking any diplomatic solution, forcing the British and the Americans to ponder military action that neither nation seriously wishes to entertain. Iran’s statement today will only exacerbate this developing situation.

The rush to war may be occurring at a snail’s pace for those on the receiving end of Assad’s cruelty, but it certainly appears to be ramping up this weekend.

Update and Thanks

As the British new academic year looms large on the horizon and the new football season kicks off, I thought I’d update you on my activities these past weeks.

First, however, let me thank all of you who have subscribed to my blog this summer. The numbers are truly humbling and I thank each and every one of you. To all of you who have taken the time to visit my site and in many cases subscribe to receive updates, my heartfelt thanks. I encourage you all to connect with me on Linkedin and also to follow me on Twitter.

Over the summer I’ve been working hard on my book, Clinton’s Grand Strategy: US Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War World, now under contract with Bloomsbury. I’m scheduled to deliver the manuscript on March 31, which sounds a long way away, but I can tell you it is only 225 days from now!

I’ve also written 2 papers contrasting Barack Obama and Richard Nixon. One focuses on their campaigns to achieve the presidency, the other deals with their times as president. Both have been submitted to academic journals and I have had positive feedback to date. I look forward to updating you on publication details.

I have been invited to give a paper addressing President Obama’s foreign policy in regard to the Middle East and will be flying to Rome in October to deliver this.

I’m also pleased to be attending the BISA US Foreign Policy Group conference at the University of Warwick in September and anticipate submitting two further papers to conferences for eventual publication before the end of the year.

I’ve been working with a range of media organisations over the summer, including LBC97.3 and The Voice of Russia, as well as appearing regularly as the Agenda Setter on Monocle24. Links to these appearances can be found on my RADIO page.

I have also been working with Aljazeera America as it prepares to launch in the United States on August 20. The station has been engaged in real-time rehearsals and I have been working with them covering several stories dealing with US foreign policy and anticipate doing so following their launch next week.

So, all in all, a rather hectic, busy but extremely rewarding summer so far. I hope that my updates, both on this site and on Twitter, keep you informed, engaged and entertained. Feel free to get in touch and let me know what you think.

US/Russian Relations: SNAFU

President Obama may well have cancelled his planned meeting with Vladimir Putin ahead of the G20 Summit this week, but that does not mean an end to diplomatic relations between the two countries. In the UK we are often guilty of placing too much focus on the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President in our endless assessment of the Special Relationship. The same mistake is arguably being made in current assessments of the US-Russian relationship. The two leaders may not be meeting, but the two countries continue to have diplomatic relations and their officials will continue to meet and liaise, despite this diplomatic tiff.

Such a situation is evidenced today with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel due to meet with their Russian counterparts. Make no mistake, Edward Snowden will be the elephant in the room, but he is unlikely to arise in conversations with the Defence Secretary. The Snowden issue may well form part of Secretary Kerry’s discussions, due to the diplomatic nature of the situation. I expect Kerry will lodge a formal complaint and make it clear that the US wants Snowden back. He will, however, be eager to move on to other matters such as the Middle East peace talks and other matters that are currently defining the US-Russian relationship.

The most challenging divide between the United States and both Russia and China, is over Syria. The inability to enact change through the UN Security Council due to diplomatic intransigence is a serious impediment on the road to an eventual solution in the region. It is, in many ways, reminiscent of the situation the US found itself in during the 1990s with regard to Bosnia, when the Russians again blocked any moves through the United Nations. It was this situation that exacerbated US moves away from the UN, and its perceived position of multilateralism, towards an embrace of NATO and allegations of unilateralism that reached an apex under President George W. Bush.

Russian and Chinese intransigence over Syria has doubtless enabled President Assad’s forces to re-group and repel rebel advances. The great challenge for the US, however, is knowing quite who the rebel forces are. It seems that whilst the West can rightly critique the Assad regime for its actions, it must be wary of merely arming rebel groups whose true intents and motivations remain a mystery. The fear of eventual Blowback is all too real in this instance. Meanwhile arms continue to flood into the region as both sides dig in for a long haul struggle. Yesterday’s assassination attempt on Assad is evidence of the increasing stakes in the country.

The disagreement with Russia over the situation in Syria is but one in a series of phantom issues that the White House has raised to mask the underlying rationale for cancelling this leadership meeting. The US State Department has insisted, “We were not at the point on our progress on a number of these issues where a summit at a presidential level was the most constructive step.” Yet the issues that have been raised are insufficient to justify the cancellation. Another excuse has been the Russian crackdown on gay propaganda, which Obama said the US has no patience for. However, the views of the Russian leadership on this matter are not new and so it is interesting that this has suddenly reared its head. Obama has hardly been a leading advocate of gay rights in the US until very recently, so it is interesting that he is suddenly attempting to prescribe social policy to Russia. The Kremlin will be aware of the administration’s position on this issue and will treat this as foreign meddling in a domestic matter. The Russian leadership will be ill prepared to take such complaints seriously from an America president bout to enter Lame Duck territory.

Ultimately, if it had not been for the Snowden incident the Obama-Putin meeting would be going ahead, however, to avoid appearing petulant, the Obama administration has raised a host of other issues upon which the White House and the Kremlin disagree. This, of course, is counterproductive. If the administration is frustrated enough with the Kremlin to cancel this meeting then it should openly announce the reasons for this and make a point of doing so. Blaming this on a variety of other issues makes the White House appear weak and vacillating.

Clearly, it is always preferable for leaders to engage in dialogue. The whole point of having meetings is to advance a dialogue on areas of disagreement. Leaders do not meet to discuss areas of agreement: That really would be a waste of time. Posturing has always been a part of diplomacy, however, in this instance the Obama administration is attempting to have things both ways: Cancelling the meeting on the one hand, but failing to be honest about the rationale on the other. This seems to be an ill thought out decision and one wonders if this is due to the changing personnel in Obama’s national security team, who are only now finding their feet at the UN and at the NSC. Today’s meetings with Kerry/Hagel and their Russian counterparts will likely be business-like and cordial, though I would not expect any great developments to emerge from them. At best they will lay the groundwork for continuing discussions on the vital issues of the day.

No Show, Over Snowden

So after much speculation, President Obama has decided he will not now meet with his Russian counterpart ahead of the G20 conference next month. The White House has announced that this is for a variety of reasons and a general lack of progress on a wide range of issues, including Syria.

Certainly there are a number of issues that are negatively impacting US-Russian relations at present and the Syrian situation is one of them. However, without the Snowden incident, the meeting would likely have gone ahead. The White House is rolling out other phantom issues to present this as less of a knee-jerk reaction, but that is what it is. If the White House wishes to cancel the meeting to make a specific point, then it should admit as much.

As it is, this cancellation is largely symbolic. The meeting was never being billed as a high-profile summit exactly, merely a handy opportunity to get together whilst Obama was in the neighbourhood.  Clearly, there is a great deal of posturing going on here. Putin wishes to reassert Russian influence on the world stage and so stood up to the United States by provided Snowden with asylum. At this point he is more interested in playing hardball than engaging in diplomatic niceties with President Obama.

Obama is sending several messages. Internationally he is demonstrating a growing frustration with the Russian leader, while domestically he is attempting to demonstrate resolve as well as toughness in the face of Russian aggression. His dealings with Russia have been a mixed bag to date. He had the benefit of dealing with Medvedev initially, but the true nature of Russian politics was revealed in Obama’s open microphone disaster that acknowledged Putin’s continuing influence and hinted at Obama’s weakness.

Obama’s every move in regard to Russia is made as he rapidly enters Lame-Duck territory. This is nothing personal, but as his second term ticks by, more and more eyes are turning to 2016 and his eventual successor. The Kremlin is aware of this and will not be in any great hurry to curry favour with a president who will be out of office in 40 months. He does so with a new foreign policy team, including Samantha Power and Susan Rice, now advising the president daily as his national security adviser. Both have been very quiet on this issue, however, with deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes front and centre. It is a shame he was passed over for the top job for what were clearly political considerations.

The Snowden affair is proving to be embarrassing and troublesome for all concerned and so far no one is emerging with their reputations intact. The US appears vindictive to many for pursuing Snowden; the Russians appeared to be dithering before finally acquiescing to grant Snowden asylum; while Snowden’s claims to be defending freedoms and liberties has taken a pounding by his choice of Russia as a location from which to defend such values.

Speaking to Jay Leno, hardly an IR specialist, the president noted last night that Russia is sinking back into a Cold War mentality. Such statements are unhelpful and are indicative of the poor state of relations that show no sign of improving any time soon. We have actually come along way since the Cold War, as my forthcoming book, Clinton’s Grand Strategy, will demonstrate. The fact that this meeting is being cancelled over Russia’s granting of asylum to an American citizen, rather than over the downing of a U2, is an indication of this.

Putin has never been a soft and cuddly individual and is no Boris Yeltsin, but are things as bad as during the Cold War? Of course not. Is Russia putting its national interest ahead of Obama’s political needs? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t it?

President Obama risks making this too personal. He’d best not get into a struggle with Putin, as it will only make things worse, and when push comes to shove, the former community organiser may find an ex-KGB lieutenant colonel to be a dangerous adversary.

However, this decision, while not helping matters, is not likely to have a knock-on effect. The two men will both be at the G20 and may even have meetings there. No one should expect a repeat of the Olympic boycott of 1980 as the Russians haven’t invaded anywhere…yet!