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 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.

JDB Media Coverage of John Kerry’s Visit to UK

I’m happy to report that it’s been a busy day with the new U.S. Secretary of State in town. John Kerry flew into London late Sunday night ahead of breakfast meeting with Prime Minister, David Cameron, in Downing Street this morning before meeting with Foreign Office officials including the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, at lunchtime.

I have been involved in media coverage of the event throughout the day, providing comment to FM4 Radio in Austria this over breakfast, Monocle24 Radio mid-morning, BBC Radio Five Live at lunchtime and finally discussing the visit on The Brenner Brief this evening.

The new SecStat was at pains to stress the importance of the Special Relationship and declared that it was ‘no accident’ that his first overseas visit was to London, hopefully dispelling too many concerns over the notion of a Pacific Pivot by the Obama Administration. His sentiments on this issue mirror those expressed by former U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in a speech made at King’s College London in January.

Whilst the following image will not win me any extra followers, I thought it was fun, taken at the New Broadcasting House headquarters of the BBC in central London.

 photo

Intelligence Design: The Podcast

Earlier this summer, after months of research and interviews, editing and designing, my report on the UK Intelligence Architecture was finally released:

Intelligence Design by Dr James D. Boys

The Rt. Hon Dr. Liam Fox, MP, the UK’s former Defence Secretary, was kind enough to provide a most gracious foreword to the report. Better still, he hand delivered a copy of the report to the Prime Minister, David Cameron. In his foreword Dr. Fox was kind enough to note, “The report’s author, Dr. James D. Boys, is to be applauded for adopting a non-partisan approach to this vital area of national security and for noting advances and errors by the two main political parties… this is clearly a time of evolution and change within the U.K.’s national security architecture. Having initiated bold moves, it is in the long-term interest of the country for the Coalition Government to urgently address the current system and I hope that it notes the recommendations made in this paper.”

I am delighted to announce that my podcast addressing the report, orchestrated by my colleagues at King’s College London, is now live and can be accessed here:

DR JAMES D. BOYS PODCAST ON UK INTELLIGENCE ARCHITECTURE LINK

 

Transatlantic Intelligence: The Missed Opportunity of the Joint Strategy Board

During President Obama’s state visit to Britain in May 2011, the White House and Downing Street jointly announced the establishment of a Joint Strategy Board to consider matters of long-term security, the threats posed by terrorism and rogue states. At the time it was anticipated that the new body presented the opportunity for the UK and the United States to work more closely together, to share intelligence and analysis, and address long-term security challenges rather than just immediate concerns. It also presented an opportunity to redress imbalances that had arisen in the past.[i]

The development was clearly intended as a commitment to the on-going relations between the United Kingdom and the United States that continues to defy expectations of an imminent demise. The relationship is one that is redefined by each new leader on both sides of the Atlantic; however, its fundamental foundations ensure that it continues to endure despite the fondest wishes of headline writers and left-leaning intellectuals. This announcement was also interesting considering the long and close relationship that has existed between the intelligence communities of both nations and also because of the unusual step of formalising a body that could potentially share what is usually jealously guarded, hard earned intelligence.

The expectation was that the Joint Strategy Board would be co-chaired by the U.S. National Security Staff and the U.K. National Security Secretariat and would include representatives from the Departments of State and Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Joint Intelligence Organisation. The board was expected to report to the U.S. and U.K. National Security Advisors who were expected to meet individually every few months.

The Board was expected to help enable a more guided, coordinated approach to analyse the “over the horizon” challenges we may face in the future and also how today’s challenges are likely to shape our future choices. It is designed to better integrate long-term thinking and planning into the day-to-day work of our governments and our bilateral relationship, as we contemplate how significant evolutions in the global economic and security environment will require shifts in our shared strategic approach. It was anticipated that the Joint Strategy Board would meet quarterly at locations that would alternate between the United States and United Kingdom. The long-term fate of the Board was to be decided by the US and UK National Security Advisors who would review its status after one year and decide whether to renew its mandate. That time has now elapsed.

The Parliamentary National Security Strategy Committee has raise questions as to the status of the Board and received rudimentary responses. The extent to which the Joint Strategy Board has provided any tangible benefits is yet to be seen. The Board only met once in 2011 and there has been an agreement not to disclose the precise topics discussed at meetings.[ii]

The status of the relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is indeed in a unique position. For all of the attempts to define the relationship in recent years, as Special, Unique or Essential, the relationship is quintessentially unexamined in an official capacity within the Foreign and Commonwealth office. Unlike other nations that have dedicated analysts to consider the rudimentary aspect of the UK’s ongoing relationship across a range of issues, there is no full time dedicated experts considering the future direction of US global policy working in Whitehall.

This point has been lamented by the former Ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer; “I sought regularly and in vain to get the Foreign Office to…draw the conclusion that if it was right to train cadres of specialists in the EU, the Middle East, Russia and China, as we do, then it was also right to create an American cadre, which we do not.”[iii] With over 400 employees currently working in the UK embassy in Washington, it could be rightly asked why more analysts are required in Whitehall. However, those posted to Washington are not necessarily experts on U.S. policy and what is needed in Whitehall is nothing above and beyond the attention that is focused upon other nations, with whom the UK has far less interest.

There is a troubling tradition of assumption making in regard to the actions of the United States. Our shared language and related heritage makes for rushed assumptions in relation to intent and motivation. There is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed regarding a misguided sense of familiarity with regard to American politics and its culture. This inadvertently causes a sense of dependency and reliance that is partially true but which is exaggerated to the detriment of both parties. As Meyer noted, “Think of American as Britain writ large and you risk coming to grief.” [iv]

It blinds the UK to policy flaws that could be potentially detrimental to the national interest and has on occasion bound us to policy initiatives that have been harmful. There is simply not enough strategic, horizon-scanning analysis being conducted on the future direction of US foreign policy and the its potential implications for the United Kingdom. The Joint Strategy Board could have been a solution to this but it does not appear to be addressing the challenges it was established to solve. It appears, instead, to be spending too much of its time addressing short-term issues rather than considering the far-reaching potential of a UK-U.S. alliance.

The Joint Strategy Board is a logical and tangible development, whose mandate should be continued, whose status should be enhanced and whose remit should be clarified. It has the potential to be a source of great significance both structurally and symbolically and its demise due to lethargy would be a sad loss and a missed opportunity.

——

This extract is taken from the author’s extended report entitled, Intelligence Design: UK National Security in a Changing World, which will be published shortly by the Bow Group, with a Foreword by Rt. Hon Dr. Liam Fox, MP.


[i] See James D. Boys, “What’s So Extraordinary About Rendition,” The International Journal of Human Rights,” Vol. 15, No. 4, May 2011, 589–604

[ii] Cabinet Office, Written evidence February 7, 2012, Evidence to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy: First Review of the National Security Strategy 2010, 111

[iii] Christopher Meyer, D.C. Confidential, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, 59

[iv] Christopher Meyer, D.C. Confidential, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005, 58

JDB Live on Air with Pippa Jones on ITalkFM Today at 12.00

Following my media work on Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to the United States yesterday, I will be in conversation with the always wonderful Pippa Jones on ITalkFM at 12.00 toaday, March 14.

Tune in to hear Pippa and I in conversation on the various issues that are being discussed by the President and the Prime Minister today in the Oval Office, as well as other bits and pieces about basketball games in Ohio and flights on Air Force One!

Listen Live HERE

JDB on David Cameron’s Trip To Washington (Part Two)

Finally, my feet hit the floor after a long day of writing and interviews. BBC, LBC and Sky News all on one day, running around trying to get some writing done in the process. Anyway, here is my on-air work with Kay Burley from Sky News this afternoon. Enjoy!

 

 

JDB on London’s LBC 97.3 fm Tonight at 21:20 GMT

I will be returning to the airwaves for the second time today to be in discussion with Kevin Maguire, sitting in for Iain Dale on LBC 97.3 fm.

Not surprisingly perhaps I will be addressing the international reaction to the events that have transpired in Libya, and the expected American reaction in particular. With allegations of having ‘led from behind’ how will the White House react now that the ‘Mad Dog’ has been overthrown?

Given the historic role that the United States has played with regard to Libya what will the direction of policy be under the new regime? Will President Obama seek to exploit this event in the presidential election of 2012, coupled with his administration’s success in killing Osama bin Laden?

What will the reaction be of the European powers who were at the forefront of efforts to remove Gaddafi from power? Where will this leave the relationships between Cameron and Hague, between Downing Street and the FCO? And spare a thought for Liam Fox, forced to resign before a potential hour of glory.

These issues and more will be addressed in what will no doubt be a fascinating interview. Tune in online at: http://www.lbc.co.uk/listen-live-3578

JDB and LBC 97.3 FM TODAY at 13.00 GMT

For the fifth time in August I will be returning to the London airwaves TODAY at 1.00 to address the continuing fallout from the release of Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. With the disintegration of the Libyan regime of Colonel Gaddafi, calls are being heard for al-Megrahi to be returned to incarceration. Last Saturday the Scottish government defended its decision to release the convicted terrorist on compassionate grounds. Is this likely, feasible or even desirable?

I will be discussing this with host Petrie Hoskin in what will no doubt be an interesting conversation that touches upon concepts of international law and justice, and which will probably involve discussion of the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. With the curtain finally descending on the Gaddafi regime, is justice finally possible for following this notorious crime?

You can listen live at http://ukrp.musicradio.com/lbc973/live

JDB on LBC Radio with Ken Livingstone this Weekend

Following my busy week of appearances on Sky News, LBC and the BBC, I will be returning to the airwaves once more this weekend.

I will be discussing the status of the United States of America with former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, on LBC 97.3 FM  at 11.00 on Saturday
August 6.

foreign and domestic policy is likely to be addressed, with issues of debt , tea parties and the special relationship with David Cameron also on the cards.

The conversation will no doubt turn to the forthcoming presidential election and the future of President Obama, whose birthday is today!

You can listen live at http://ukrp.musicradio.com/lbc973/live