JDB Speaking At Chatham House

On Thursday September 5, 2013, I was honoured to be invited to address an invited audience at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House. Founded in 1920 and home to the famed ‘Chatham House Rule,’ the organisation is ranked No. 1 Think Tank outside of the US, and No. 2. Think Tank Worldwide.

I led off discussion in at a debate entitled, Syria: The International Response, and was honoured to be joined by author Dr Alan George, Chatham House
Research Director of International Security, Dr Patricia Lewis, and Rt Hon Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP, Chairman, Intelligence and Security Committee; UK Foreign Secretary (1995-97). The session was masterfully chaired by Philippe Sands QC, Barrister, Matrix Chambers; Professor of International Law, University College London.

It was a wonderful evening in which I was able to address the development of the US position in regard to Syria and the impact that this has had on US-UK relations. It also enabled me to address the forthcoming debate in Congress.

The presentations were followed by a lively and informed Q&A session that further added to the evening.

A very nice photograph of the evening is available HERE

I was delighted to receive a very kind letter from Deputy Director of Chatham House Events, Catherine O’Keeffe:

 

On behalf of Chatham House, I would like to thank you very much for coming to speak to our members and guests yesterday evening. The audience greatly appreciated the opportunity to hear you discuss Syria and the international response. Your insights on US foreign policy were particularly valuable to the discussion.

Equally appreciated was your participation in the question and answer session, where you addressed a diverse set of challenging issues with great clarity. We received many positive comments from participants on how much they valued the new insights you were able to share with them.

 

 

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…

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!

The Two Turning Points in the 2012 Presidential Election

When the 2012 presidential election is analysed retrospectively, I believe that 2 events will prove decisive. First were the debates. All too often they have been dull, lifeless affairs. This year, however, we witnessed real excitement, high drama and three debates that greatly helped shape the course of the race in its final weeks. The first debate was a clear victory for Mitt Romney, the second a tie and the third… well as with all these things, it is possible to take from an event what you bring to it. Opinion was divided, but my calculation was that even if Obama won on points, he failed to land a knockout blow, and on foreign policy this was telling.

Obama’s performances away from an autocue have alternated between petulance and perfunctory. His attempts at humour have backfired and his efforts to assert his stance as president have oftentimes appeared to be condescending. Throughout the debates he sought – and on two out of three occasions secured – the support of the moderator. Obama’s dithering over the Benghazi tragedy did little to inspire confidence. His inability to present a comprehensive strategy for the next four years, in over fours hours of debates, was equally troubling. The president’s performances in these debates raised questions as to the real nature of his abilities. Four years ago, many hailed his arrival on the political scene as a breath of fresh air. Here, it was proclaimed, was a new type of politician who could get things done, reposition America and initiate a new era in U.S. politics. Four years later, much has occurred to diminish this reputation. In retrospect it is clear, as it was to many at the time, that almost any Democrat was going to win the presidency in 2008. Arguably, Obama’s great victory came not in November 2008, but in the previous summer when he secured the nomination.

In recent weeks I have considered the presidential debates for The Commentator and for Sky News. I have sought to present a considered perspective on the events and to highlight that even when the debates could be considered a tie, this itself could be considered a triumph for Romney, due to Obama’s inability to derail the Republican’s remarkable last gasp surge. This has caused my vision and sanity to be called into question by those who felt that Obama’s performance was superior and sufficient to restore his lead in the polls. I have been referred to as a Theatre Critic for focusing upon the candidates’ performance in the debate and less on specific policy details.

So, what was the impact of the debates on the polls? Gallup had Romney up by 6 points nationally, 51 to 45 percent. This has been compounded by a Real Clear Politics prediction that placed Romney ahead in the Electoral College for the first time in the contest by 206 to 201 with less than two weeks to go and ahead in Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina. With the polls swinging in Romney’s favour, the only question appeared to be whether there was enough time before the election for the momentum to carry him to victory in the key swing states he needs to win.

This was not yet a done deal, but the world was blissfully unaware how close Obama appeared at this stage to becoming a one-term president. This possibility was woefully under-reported in the press and it was revealing how many highly respected political scientist, historians, and supposed experts are openly dismissive of the possibility of a Romney presidency, putting aside their professional training to discount the slightest possibility that Obama could lose.

And then Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. Usually when political scientists and pollsters consider the implications of the weather on voter turnout in elections, they do so with rainstorms in Ohio in mind, not the risk that the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States might be reduced to rubble by a storm, the like of which is hard to imagine. There was little doubt that heading into the final week of the campaign, Mitt Romney was in the ascendancy. His debate performances had been solid and he had continued to build upon the momentum he developed from the first debate in Denver. Discussion and analysis of the vice presidential candidates, or of the final debate suddenly seem a long time ago.

The Obama campaign appeared desperate to get as many supporters to the polls as early as possible, lest they be convinced by Romney’s hopeful message in the final days of the campaign. Even the President himself voted early, in an historic first. The White House’s nightmare, of a continuing Romney surge, peaking on Election Day, appeared to be a distinct possibility.

Whist is it still a little early to be certain, it appears to be a distinct possibility that Barack Obama will owe his re-election to the mayhem and chaos that has been delivered upon the Eastern Seaboard, and on the millions of Americans who lives have just been blown apart. In times of crisis it is to the President of the United States that the people turn. Not to his challengers, or to the Speaker of the House. The eyes of the nation and indeed the world have been fixed on Barack Obama, and in the past 48 hours he has been seen to rise to the occasion.

When Republican Governor Chris Christie (until not to long ago, a serious candidate as Republican VP) is seen greeting the President warmly and praising his efforts to assist in the recovery operation, it is difficult not to sympathise with the Romney team. With power out in many key districts, one wonders if the election results could easily be called into question on Election Night. They have come so far, closed an almost insurmountable gap in voter intent, only, it appears, to be undone, quite literally, by an Act of God.

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

The Supreme Power

As President Obama prepared to hear from the Supreme Court on the constitutionality of his health care reforms this week, he was doubtless reminded that the President of the United States is but a single player in American political life. Despite the media attention on the Oval Office, the executive branch of government is but one of three branches in the U.S. system and we overlook the Congress and the Supreme Court at our peril if we are to appreciate the true nature of power within the United States.

The President of the United States was originally conceived by the Framers of the American Constitution to be a secondary figure in American politics, yielding ultimate power to the United States Congress. That this was their intention is clear from the very manner in which they wrote the Constitution. The office of President was not dealt with until Article One had clearly outlined the overwhelming powers of the Congress.

Whilst the character of the presidency will differ from one occupant to the next, two criteria remain; Firstly, whoever the President may be, the Constitution bestows upon him the roles of Chief Executive, Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces, Chief Diplomat, Chief Recruiting Office for the Executive and the Courts, and Legislator. Secondly, despite the millions of people that form the Federal Government, the President is the only national unifying force. Uniting the Head of State and the Head of Government in a single office, the president has extraordinary powers, but must wield them under extraordinary limitations.

For despite the power that comes with the presidential responsibilities, there comes the close eye of the United States Congress and the Supreme Court. The President may be Commander-In-Chief, but he requires Congress to declare war. The President may pass laws, but the Court can declare them to be unconstitutional. The President may be the chief recruiting officer to the Executive and the Courts, but many of his recommendations require confirmation by the Congress. The President may nominate Justices and even Chief Justices, but once appointed, they are beholden to no one.

The president’s problems are compounded further by the absence of a strong party system. As Congress grows ever more fragmented, party leadership becomes all the weaker, ensuring that the coalition building that is essential for legislative success is now more difficult. In Federalist Paper No. 48, James Madison wrote of Congress; “Its constitutional powers being at once more extensive, it can with greater facility, mask the encroachments it makes on the co-ordinate departments.” Considering the accuracy of his prophecy, it would be intriguing to speculate as to what Madison would have made of today’s Congress.

Since 1945, Congress has extended its use of appropriations and investigations, and has become increasingly involved in aspects of government, which had previously been the exclusive domain of the Executive Branch. Relations between the Congress and the Presidency have become increasingly strained since the Watergate hearings, which brought the downfall of President Nixon. The sins of Richard Nixon, coupled with the humiliation of the Vietnam War resulted in new Congressional restrictions upon the Presidency. As such, the Congress enhanced its own power and diminished that of the President.

The rather serene nature of the Supreme Court (coupled with its Supreme power) has seen it remain largely outside of the political sphere except in the rarest of circumstances, such as we are in today and as the United States found itself in following the 2000 election. Certainly no presidency in recent memory has been foolhardy enough to challenge the sovereignty of the Court.

The separation of the powers lies at the very heart of the American political system. Over the years however, the relationship between the Presidency, the Court and the Congress appears to have been based les on a separation of powers and more upon a separation of political principles. This resulting clash of political wills results in the condition known as Gridlock. With Congress and the Presidency fighting for political domination, the only true victims are the American public who fail to benefit when legislation is vetoed by the President, filibustered by the Congress, or declared unconstitutional by the Court.

In an effort to project themselves as defenders of the public interest, the presidents often claim to see policies in terms of the national interest, elevating themselves above party, special interests and even ideology. Ultimately, the President must govern effectively. In his decision making process, the president will have to take into consideration a plethora of opinions. Ultimately however, he must act, notwithstanding the disapproval of certain constituencies. The making of such decisions is clearly hindered in times of recession or when, even when the economy is growing, the budget deficit is rising. With tax increases now akin to political suicide, and the knowledge that spending cuts usually affect those that are already suffering, the main way to increase government spending is by borrowing. This however merely increases the budget deficit. As a result of this stalemate, the notion of a Zero Sum Society has been perpetuated: When federal spending is constant, distributional questions become a zero sum game; when one person gains, another must lose. No single individual has the burden of making these distributional decisions other than the president. It is he alone who is responsible for producing an annual budget amounting to over $3,500 billion. His power and responsibilities therefore, are little short of remarkable. However as President Clinton testified, “The president does not govern alone. I am more like the captain of a ship. I can steer it, but a storm can still come up and sink it. And the people that are supposed to be rowing can refuse to row.”

Clearly the field of domestic politics is a bloody one, upon which presidents are fearful of defeat. The cultural and geographic diversity within America is a major reason for the difficulty in domestic agendas. Whatever the President’s decision may be, some will lose out. With lobby groups and political opponents waiting to make the most out of such misfortune, the president’s role in domestic affairs is one fraught with trouble. The notion that the presidency is “the most powerful office on earth” conceals the extent to which the presidency now enjoys less freedom of action than in the past.

The presidency is a constantly evolving office, which is redefined by each new occupant. Barack Obama has successfully placed health care reform at the heart of his presidency, a decision that the Supreme Court has now approved as being constitutional. The tension that was raised in the wait for their verdict, however, reveals the overlooked reality of political power in Washington: The final decision rests not with a directly elected member of Congress, nor with a President indirectly decided upon by an Electoral College, but with nine individuals elected by, and answerable to, absolutely no one.

Memory and Memorial: Obama and Vietnam 50 Years on?

This week the President of the United States quite correctly marked Memorial Day with a series of visits to military sites and memorials. His keynote address was at the Vietnam Memorial on Washington’s National Mall, a memorial that has itself been the subject of great controversy over the years.  During the address President Obama announced that the United States will be holding a 13-year period of observation, commencing May 28, 2012 and ending on November 11, 2025 to mark the dates of the Vietnam War.

This is fascinating for many reasons. I have often asked my students, most of whom are American, to pinpoint the start of the Vietnam War. It is, of course, a trick question, deliberately designed to get them to think and to question preconceived ideas. For a start, which Vietnam War am I asking them to consider? There have been many. Secondly, if they narrow it down to the one involving the United States, which particularly phase am I asking them to consider?  Dates are eventually thrown about like confetti; everything from the mid 1950s through to 1968. May 1962 never gets a mention.

There is no doubt that, as the President observed, the treatment that Vietnam veterans received was little short of a national disgrace in many, though not all, cases. But there is something odd about this 13-year nation observation, its timing and the identification of a ‘start date’ for the war.

A Little History

The American experience in Vietnam began earlier than many realise. In 1941, President Roosevelt believed that a possible occupation of Vietnam would give Japan a base in South East Asia, which would threaten rubber supplies, required by the US defence industry. This led to the freezing of Japanese assets in the U.S that helped provoke the attack on Pearl Harbour. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh, whom the US had backed,  proclaimed the Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Having established rulers in Cambodia and Laos, the French reinstated Bao Dai as Head of State in Vietnam in an attempt to re‑assert colonial rule. By the end of 1953, the United States was spending $1 billion a year to keep the French forces in Vietnam.

On May 7, 1954 massive attacks finally overwhelmed the French troops at Dien Bien Phu. Before their beleaguered retreat, the French had pleaded with the United States for direct military assistance. The Joint Chiefs proposed an air strike, the Vice‑President Richard Nixon suggested, “putting our boys in.” When the Congress expressed reservations, President Eisenhower sought British support. Prime Minister Churchill refused. Failing to achieve foreign support, Eisenhower retreated from unilateral intervention in Vietnam. He soon wrote Vietnamese Prime Minister Diem promising American support “in developing a viable state, capable of resisting subversion through military means.”[i] In return Eisenhower expected reform in Vietnam. Reform would mean improvement for the nation and therefore the people. If the people could see that their lives were improved due to American aid, why would the country want to become communist? President Eisenhower justified American involvement in Vietnam by invoking ‘The Domino Theory’. This premise was based on the notion that if Vietnam were to become communist, the whole of South East Asia would follow. This was accepted even though China had fallen five years previously and had failed to produce such a chain reaction.

In January 1961, the responsibilities of Vietnam passed to President John F. Kennedy. As a Congressman, Kennedy had visited Vietnam in 1951, reporting that America was “allied to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of Empire. Without the support of the natives there is no hope of success in South East Asia.”[ii] As President, Kennedy continued Eisenhower’s policy of sending military advisers to South Vietnam, increasing the aid during 1961 and 1962. After the Bay of Pigs disaster of March 1961, Kennedy remarked “We have a problem making our power credible, the place to do so is Vietnam.”[iii] Despite assuring the world that “America would pay any price to ensure the survival and the success of liberty,”[iv] the President steadfastly refused to commit combat units to Vietnam, despite the over‑whelming pressure to do so from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The troops will march in, crowds will cheer, and four days later everyone will have forgotten.” Kennedy quipped. “Then we’ll be told we have to send in more troops.”[v]

The President realised that if the war became a white mans’ affair, America would lose as surely as the French had. Kennedy was aware that America had drawn a line in Vietnam, and that he could not abandon it lightly. The President was in the position of being apparently unable to withdraw from the conflict, whilst refusing to adopt a policy of total war. Having convinced the Soviets of American credibility in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, Kennedy began to reassess the American position in Asia. Defence Secretary Robert S. McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor reported back from Vietnam that One thousand troops could be withdrawn by the end of 1963, and that the United States would be able to withdraw all military personnel by the end of 1965.”[vi]

This plan was outlined in the Top Secret national Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263, dated October 11, 1963. This was the order to start the withdrawal of troops from Vietnam. “It’s their war,” President Kennedy stated “they’re the ones who have to win it or lose it.”[vii] This stance was a serious deviation from the cold war policies of the past, and many speculated that it would be indicative of Kennedy’s second term. The President realised that he would be labelled as being “soft on communism”.[viii] He described his policy thus;  “If the American people do not want to use troops in Cuba how can I ask them to remove a Communist regime 9,000 miles away?”[ix] His sentiment was strengthened by the murder of Diem on November 1,1963. “A high level meeting in Honolulu on November 20, 1963 apparently adopted an ‘accelerated plan’ for reducing troop commitments.”[x]

This new policy was to be short lived. Within weeks President Kennedy was assassinated and the American responsibility in Vietnam fell to Lyndon Johnson. John F. Kennedy had never been an advocate of fighting a land war in Asia, Agreeing with general Douglas McArthur that to do so would be futile.”[xi] Lyndon Johnson however saw the situation in a different light. As Vice President he had visited Vietnam and had given Diem his word that America would fight to defend his country, referring to the corrupt leader as “the Winston S. Churchill of South East Asia.”[xii] This was contrary to American policy at the time, but Johnson saw that he had given his word, and he intended to keep it. To Kennedy, Vietnam had been a distant war, and one to be avoided. To Lyndon Johnson, it was almost personal.

One of Johnson’s first acts as President was to sign National Security Action Memorandum 273, reversing Kennedy’s withdrawal policy. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, so long in favour of strong military intervention in Vietnam, finally had a President who would fight in Asia. Having been elected in his own right in 1964, President Johnson began the build up of troops in Vietnam with military landings at Danang in March 1965. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution granted President Johnson the capacity to wage undeclared war in Vietnam though few in Congress could have predicted Johnson’s escalation. Operation Rolling Thunder, the American air strikes against the north, went on daily from March 1965 until November 1968, dropping a million tons of bombs. The war would cost Johnson the Presidency, it had cost many more their lives. But the war did not end there. President Nixon dragged the war on for another five years, costing another 19,000 American lives. Ultimately, “The real domino to fall was American public opinion.”[xiii]

The American sense of mission, a paranoid fear of communism and McCarthy Red Scares prompted American action in Vietnam, which escalated to fill the void left by the French withdrawal. The assassination of President Kennedy prevented a 1965 American withdrawal, and President Johnson, having gambled his presidency upon military victory could not be seen to accept a negotiated settlement. Fear of being the first U.S. President to lose a war prevented Lyndon Johnson from accepting the 1968 verdict of his Cabinet that the war was now un­-winnable. The same dread permeated the soul of President Nixon, who spread the fighting into the state of Cambodia. Political fear cost the lives of thousands of young American troops, and countless more Vietnamese.

Obama and Vietnam

Nowhere in this historical record does the date of May 28, 1962 loom large. The decision of the Obama Administration to identify this date is seemingly without merit, except for current political considerations. The administration appears determined to promote the role of Commander-in-Chief to bolster the president in his campaign for re-election. This was evident in the recent ‘One Chance’ commercial that received such criticism for Obama’s inability to share the success of bid Laden’s demise with those who actually carried out the attack. It is also evident in his utilisation of the Memorial Day ceremonies to address Vietnam in a whole artificial manner. From the details previously referenced, it is clear that many dates loom large as potential ‘start dates’ for the American war in Vietnam, but May 28 1962 is not one of them. The United States had military advisers in Vietnam under Eisenhower. Kennedy refused to end in ground troops, choosing instead to continue with Ike’s use of advisers. Only after the 1964 election did the Marines land at Danang, heralding the start of the American land war.

One of the reasons that pinpointing the start of the war is so difficult is that no one wants to admit responsibility for it. Admirers of Eisenhower point to JFK’s build up of advisers. JFK advocates highlight his inheritance of advisers in Vietnam and his refusal to commit ground troops as well as his plans to withdraw during 1964. LBJ’s admirers highlight his inheritance of Kennedy’s advisers, the terrible circumstances surrounding his ascension to the presidency and suggest it was all Kennedy’s doing.

The irony here is incredible for anyone wishing to seek it: No one did more to enhance Obama’s standing in the 2008 primaries than the Kennedy family. Their decision to back Obama over Hillary was a huge event. Now, to thank them, Obama is officially blaming JFK for starting the Vietnam War. This is a truly horrendous mistake that makes a mockery of Kennedy’s repeated efforts to avoid the conflict and defy the military leaders calling for the insertion of ground troops.

One wonders what the reaction would have been to this speech had it been made by George W. Bush. One can picture historians rushing to TV studios lamenting his poor understanding of history, his attempt to whitewash the past and his obvious attempt to besmirch the memory of a Democratic Administration.

There were a series of dates that the President and his Administration could have chosen as a potential start date for he Vietnam War, either before or after 1962. I am indebted to Dr. Erik Villard for his insights into this issue. The administration chose a date after consultation with four military service historical offices, but this does not beam that this was a correct decision. Simply picking a date because of some vague relevance to a single helicopter raid in January 1962 or to the formation of MACV in February 1962 is not enough of a reason to make a really important declaration to signify the commencement of operations and therefore of the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

An earlier draft of this work was denounced as “an attempt to use Vietnam as a political tool to serve right-wing conservative ideological ends.” This could not be further from the truth. Ii is instead an appeal for accuracy in an assessment of history and a recognition of the importance of the president’s remarks. In this announcement, President Obama has done a great disservice to the Kennedy family who did so much to ensure that he reached the White House. It can only be hoped that this announcement is soon lost to history and that Obama’s efforts to whitewash history are quickly ended.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King’s College, London


[i] Arthur Schlesinger, “The Bitter Heritage,” London: Andre Deutsch, 1967,18

[ii] Arthur Schlesinger, “The Bitter Heritage,” London: Andre Deutsch, 1967,15

[iii] Stanley Karnow, “Vietnam: A History,” London: Random House, 1991, 265

[iv] Theodore C. Sorenson, “Kennedy,” London, Pan Books, 1965, 274

[v] Theodore C. Sorenson, “Kennedy,” London, Pan Books, 1965, 725

[vi] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 614

[vii] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 587

[viii] Kim McQuaid, “The Anxious Years,” New York: Basic Books, 1989, 22

[ix] Jim Marrs, “Crossfire, “ New York, Carroll & Graf, 1989, 307

[x] Horowitz, Carroll & Lee, ”On The Edge,” St. Paul MN: West Books, 1990, 440

[xi] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 110

[xii] Richard Reeves, “President Kennedy, Profile in Power,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 119

[xiii] George Tindall, & David Shi, “America: A Narrative History,” Third Edition, New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 1992,24

Obama and the Death of the American Space Program

The final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery atop of a special 747 (the like of which many people will only have seen at the beginning of the James Bond movie, Moonraker) reveals the true gulf between President Obama’s campaign rhetoric and his vision for and of the United States of America.

Barack Obama campaigned as a visionary, using a high rhetorical style, the like of which had not been heard since the heady days of the 1960s and the presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy, whose siblings Obama so assiduously courted. He was anointed as a Kennedyesque figure for the 21st century, but almost as soon as he was elected the rhetorical style dimmed along with his apparent vision for the United States of America.

The high rhetoric of the campaign was replaced by a dull monotone delivered from the omnipresent TelePrompTer. The soaring exhortation of a better tomorrow was replaced by a hectoring tone and with a moral and intellectual superiority more reminiscent of Carter than Kennedy.

President Kennedy was known to quote Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision the people perish.” America faces such a situation today under President Obama and this is exemplified in the state of the space programme.

The role of NASA in the American psyche has been essential since President Kennedy made the astronaut the hero of the New Frontier and dedicated the United States to a mission like no other: To place a man on another world. Kennedy used the Space Program as a tool in the Cold War, but also to inspire a generation of Americans to greatness. “We chose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” he told an audience at Rice University. The successful accomplishment of that mission was the culmination of a dream, a political struggle and the dedication of millions of man-hours by the hard working people on Florida’s Space Coast and at installations across the nation. It epitomised the American ‘can-do’ attitude that had seen the nation grow and become the most powerfully in the world in such a short period of time. In retrospect, however, it was perhaps the apex of the American century.

With the 1970s came the decision by the Nixon administration to initiate the Shuttle programme, designed to make space travel more routine and business-like, utilising a reusable vessel capable of delivering a payload and then returning safely to earth. To a new generation, the Space Shuttle became the epitome of the United States in the 1980s as it soared majestically into the clear blue skies over the Kennedy Space Centre, taking the United States into space and making such missions seem routine. But the launches never lost the ability to strike awe into all who witnessed them. There was something in the power, the majesty, the danger and the romance of the space mission that drew all in homage. It was a thrilling, exciting and dangerous exercise, which continued the original quest that Kennedy had inspired.

Politicians of all parties were happy to revel in the reflected glory of the space mission and the recognition that it separated the United States from all other nations. It was an extension of Manifest Destiny and the epitome of American Exceptionalism in the third millennium. Even President George W. Bush announced plans to send a manned mission to Mars to continue the ongoing American mission to take mankind beyond the confines of its home planet.

However, the President of the United States has now terminated the shuttle program and cancelled the manned mission to Mars. At a stroke he has announced America’s abdication of space at precisely the moment when America’s competitors appear capable of assuming a foothold in that vital region. To do so is folly and gives credence to those who claim that this president fails to recognise the exceptionalism of the United States. His actions add fuel to those who wish to talk and write endlessly of an inevitable American decline.

NASA’s Space Centre in Florida, for all the romance associated with it, has become a sad reflection of its heyday, it’s facilitates yearning for a new mission to once again inspire the world with American ingenuity. Newt Gingrich recently spoke of developing a Moon base if elected president, a sentiment that received mockery around the world. However, whilst it is clear that ‘Moonbase Gingrich’ is about as likely as a Gingrich Administration, at least the former Speaker was offering a vision of a return to the glory days of America’s space mission. The present occupant of the Oval Office offers no such vision and as a result the very rationale for NASA may perish.

The world’s media covered the final flight of the Discovery but they appeared to miss the point. This was not a flight of fantasy, but rather a one-way trip to become a museum piece, to be stared at by children, too young to recall its magic and majesty, and mourned by those who could. It will be placed in a mausoleum by a president who campaigned as a visionary and appears capable only of presiding of the diminution of the United States; a president who appears not to appreciate the power of imagination and ideas that helped propel the American people from sea to shining sea and then out into the stars.

The final flight of the Discovery across the skies above Washington DC resembled the sad, lonely flight of Air Force One on November 25, 1963, as it flew low over the nation’s capital, crossed the Potomac and dipped its wings in final salute to the memory of the man who had inspired the moon mission and whose body was at that very moment being lowered into the ground at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Without vision the people perish.” It is such vision that America, its people and its space program require today from its President.

(This article originally appeared on The Commentator website Apil 18, 2012)