Senator Barack makes a comeback

Obama strategic realist

Obama reconnects with strategic reality.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

Barack Obama has never been one of my favourites.

He was a child of the ‘60s cultural revolution, I of the pre-revolutionary perennial tradition. He had his Saul Alinsky; I had B.A. Santamaria. We were formed in different universes.

For a “perennialist”, Obama’s “Yes we can!” is a menace to things that claim our allegiance. 

For instance: as President, Obama set himself to undo the keystone “perennial” of society – the nature of marriage. He championed domestically the euphemism “LGBT rights”. It would be a short step to making them an item of US foreign policy. 

And so it was. 

Last year, with studied indifference to the Orthodox Christian sensibilities of Serbs and Bulgarians, American ambassadors took to the streets to support “gay pride” marches in Belgrade and Sophia. 

Obama’s nomination in June 2013 of the “openly gay” John Berry as ambassador to Australia was thus all-of-a-piece with wider policy. It was a signal to our then rampant Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that his support for a traditional view of marriage was in Uncle Sam’s Age of Aquarius crosshairs. 

No-one, therefore, should have been astonished when, in the wake of the G20, Obama treated his Commonwealth of Australia and Queensland hosts with disdain by critiquing Australian governments on another touchstone issue – environment policies and, in particular, those bearing on the Great Barrier Reef. 

The incident ought to serve as a cautionary tale about the need for circumspection in Australia’s relations with our overbearing friend and ally. 

Barack the Wise 

There is one thing, however, for which Obama does deserve credit, even from us paleos. In the final analysis, his resort to armed force in office has proved relatively cautious. He might even be reconnecting with his former Senatorial posture as a strategic realist. 

Notwithstanding the confusion that has attended US Middle East policy on his watch, Obama has ended up making a prudent response to the rise of Islamic State. He’s taken the line: if Islamic State is a problem for the locals, let them fight it; we’ll add air-support, intelligence, advising; but that’s as far as we’ll go. 

I imagine that Obama must recently have asked his national security advisers this question: 

“Now tell me, one more time, how is the survival of Iraq as we’ve known it vital to U.S. interests?” 

As a Senator, Barack Obama took the side of wisdom when he opposed the Iraq war. Back in October 2002, nearly six months out from the invasion, he delivered in Chicago a prescient address: 

“I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein… He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him. 

“But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbours, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida. I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” 

Well, said. I was impressed at the time, if too late convinced. 

Barack the Rash 

In office, disappointingly, Obama’s conviction about “dumb wars” was not so firm. In backing the campaign to destroy Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s former dictator, Obama gave in to the same temptation for which he’d blamed George W. Bush, and with similar results. 

Libya is now an “ungoverned space” and Gaddafi’s former arsenals supply Islamist insurgencies in sub-Saharan Africa — and may also have also ended up in Syria. 

If one can believe a fascinating (if unsourced) article by Seymour Hersh, The Redline and the Rat Line — published in April 2014 in the London Review of Books — Gaddafi’s guns did indeed find their way into the hands of Syrian insurgents including, probably, Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Al-Nusra Front.

Is the survival of Iraq as we’ve known it vital to U.S. interests?
According to Hersh, this was not an unintended consequence of failed policy. In early 2012 a “number of [CIA] front companies were set up in Libya” to procure and ship weapons into Syria.

Curiously, some of these companies were established “under the cover of Australian entities.” If true, I assume that the then Gillard government’s National Security Committee, before sanctioning this operation, considered how running guns to our enemies would enhance Australia’s national interests and domestic security. 

The pity for Obama was that he was yoked in the Libyan venture to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. On the spectrum of US foreign policy positions, she is an eager “liberal interventionist” for whom — and for which — there is strong support within the Democratic Party. (Remember that NATO’s map-redrawing intervention in the Kosovo war, and the accompanying air campaign against Serbia, was a Bill Clinton project.) It was clearly Obama, however, who gave the green light to a new round of “régime change”, albeit this time executed by allies anxious to outrun him on the world stage: Britain and France and, to a lesser extent, Italy. 

On a roll 

Back then, for a time, the Obama-Clinton team seemed to have caught a wave. They had pulled the plug on Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned in February 2011. Massed demonstrations and the American veto had made his position untenable. In the same month, revolution broke out in Libya and, a few weeks later, under the cover of a UN resolution to impose a no-fly zone, NATO aircraft flew way beyond their mandate by targeting Gaddafi and his family and by providing air support and intelligence to the rebels. 

The low high-point of this intervention came when, with the help of NATO intelligence, Libyan rebels caught Gaddafi in Sirte and killed him like a dog. That was 20 October 2011; then things began to unravel. 

A year after these events, Libya was a formless chaos. No government capable of asserting national authority had formed. Security was in the hands of militias, many of which had fallen under the influence of radical Islamists. Connections with Al-Qaeda had been forged. On 11 September 2012, after months of hostile incidents around the US consulate in Benghazi, the local Ansar al-Sharia militia launched a full-scale assault. Consul, Christopher Stevens, and three other US personnel were killed. Hillary Clinton had to take the rap. 

In Egypt, meanwhile, national elections on 30 November 2012 had delivered a constituent assembly dominated by supporters of jihad and shar’ia law. By the middle of 2013 the army decreed the assembly dissolved and a struggle for supreme power broke out between the army and the newly elected president, Mohammed Morsi. 

Such was the harvest of the “Arab spring” and of régime change in North Africa. Yet Obama seemed to be shaping up for a re-run of the Libya strategy. 

Full circle

On 20 August 2012 he warned Syria’s Bashir Al-Assad that any deployment of chemical weapons against the rebels would constitute a “red-line”. Plans were prepared for a campaign of airstrikes, and after a year of on-and-off drum beating, an American assault seemed imminent. Then, suddenly, the gathering storm dissipated and dissolved.  

On the face of it, Obama’s rookie Secretary of State, John Kerry, had blundered. In London, on 9 September 2013, he made an off-the-cuff demand that Syria give up its chemical weapons – a safe move, he figured, because impossible for Assad to meet. Almost on the instant, however, the Russians shot back with an undertaking from Assad to hand over these weapons for destruction. Suddenly, America lost its justification for attack. Obama and Kerry were humiliated; Putin and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, were exalted. 

For my liking, the explanation is too simple. 

My hunch is that Obama had already gone cold on Project Syria. Maybe the Turks, who badly want a client régime in Damascus, had made the mistake of pushing him too hard and Obama had stopped listening. Maybe also evidence was lacking that would pin the use of sarin gas irrefutably on Assad. 

Then there was the solid fact that Egypt had turned full circle.

In July 2013 the army had overthrown and imprisoned Morsi and within another month it had driven the Moslem Brothers from the streets. Thousands died. For America, backing the “democratic revolution” in Egypt had accomplished nothing except for the betrayal of an old ally, Hosni Mubarak.

Would overthrowing yet another dictator improve things from a US national interest perspective? 

Little wonder, then, that Obama appeared to hesitate when Islamic State invaded Iraq and took his time piecing together a response better suited to his earlier “dumb wars” instincts. 

Obama, I think, was recovering his senses. 

Which brings my thoughts back to Obama’s speech at Queensland University: was that simply cavalier snarkiness? I think not. The message seemed calculated: 

“Don’t try to get out ahead of me on stuff again.”

Leave a Reply