The Uses of Relative Inaction

It seems we now have roving gangs of Trump Thugs – or just two random young white kids painting a swastika, stuff about niggers and queers, and Trump’s name, on the walls of a nondenominational college chapel. They also painted over a photo of Muslim students inside that chapel, but never mind. Those two are in jail. Unlike the guy who sucker-punched the young black man being escorted out of a Trump rally, who said the next time he’d have to kill that young black man, Donald Trump has not yet offered to cover all legal costs and fines and whatnot for these two young men. He may or may not praise their enthusiasm. He may just shrug. But one never knows. Donald Trump is a bit unpredictable.

That was the sort of news story that was making the rounds the day before the important Florida Republican primary – the end of Marco Rubio’s political career at the hands of Donald Trump – and the important Ohio Republican primary – the likely sudden emergence of John Kasich as almost marginally significant in spite of Donald Trump. It was all Trump All the Time, but of course there was other news, and it was startling:

President Vladimir Putin announced Monday that Russia would begin withdrawing the “main part” of its military from Syria, a surprise potential end to a six-month intervention that bolstered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and dealt a grave blow to Syrian rebels.

The decision came as UN-brokered peace talks between the Assad government and rebel representatives got underway in Geneva. The planned Tuesday start of the withdrawal coincides with the five-year anniversary of the beginning of street protests in Syria, an initially peaceful movement that was brutally repressed by Assad forces.

What, Putin backed down? It seems so:

Through it all, Russia has backed Assad. But Monday’s decision may intensify pressure on the Syrian government to strike a deal with rebel groups in Geneva. Talks resumed there on Monday after breaking down a month ago because the rebels were suffering such heavy losses in their surrounded stronghold of Aleppo. A shaky cease-fire has quelled fighting in Syria since late February, but Assad’s forces have continued an assault on their rivals.

“I hope that this will considerably increase the level of trust between all parties of the Syrian settlement and will contribute to a peaceful resolution of the Syrian issue,” Putin said in a meeting with his top deputies that was broadcast on Russian state television late Monday. In a separate phone call with Assad, Putin said the intervention had “radically changed the situation” on the ground, according to the Kremlin.

No, he didn’t back down, but the Russians were outta there anyway, having done what they intended, or simply walking away from a mess – it was hard to say, but they were saying that diplomacy should take over. Isn’t diplomacy a sign of weakness? That’s what Donald Trump has been saying. That’s why he admires Putin. This upsets things, but the Obama administration was also taken by surprise:

The White House said President Obama later “discussed” with Putin in a telephone call that had been previously scheduled to talk about implementation of the cease-fire.

Obama had to shift gears – new topic – because no one expected this:

Putin made the decision unilaterally, without any such request from Assad, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. It was a pointed message suggesting that Russia’s support for Assad is not unlimited, now that he is unlikely to be deposed by force.

It seems Putin knows a loser and jerk when he sees one – that would be Assad. It was time to move one. Assad will be eased out. The Syria civil war had been a mistake. Russia will find someone else to protect their southwestern flank – and it seems we won’t have to invade and take over Syria after all. We will not go to war with Russia over this. There’s no need now for a ten year proxy war with them.

Did we inadvertently win here? The Russians are pulling out of Syria. Had our relative inaction been the right thing to do? Was the Obama Doctrine finally working?

When he gets around to it, if he does, Donald Trump may say that Putin pulled out of Syria because he knew Trump was going to be the next president, and he was scared shitless – we’d have killed every Russian in Syria and Putin would look like a fool. Trump did this, not Obama, but that’s a stretch. Things are winding down in Syria. Obama is still our president. Maybe Obama did have something to do with this. All the Republican candidates have been saying that Obama is a wimp who projects weakness and he’s going to get us all killed, but maybe he does know what he’s doing – maybe the Obama Doctrine works.

That’s possible, but no one quite knows what the Obama Doctrine is, so Kevin Drum offers this:

I’ve long believed that the attack on Libya was something of a watershed for President Obama. Before that, he may have been more skeptical of using American military power than most people, but he was still basically on board the consensus train. After that, he finally felt in his gut what he had long believed in his mind: American intervention, especially in the Middle East, just doesn’t work very well.

That may be it, and Drum points to the new cover story for the Atlantic from Jeffery Goldberg that explains The Obama Doctrine:

Goldberg suggests that the real turning point was Syria’s chemical weapons. Obama had famously drawn a “red line” on Syria in 2012: if the regime used chemical weapons, it could expect a ruthless American response. But a year later, when Bashar al-Assad’s army went ahead and used them anyway, Obama got cold feet. The fascinating part is this: if there’s a single foreign policy decision that’s earned him the most abuse, this is the one. But it turns out that Obama himself thinks it’s one of his finest moments.

Goldberg offers this:

Given Obama’s reticence about intervention, the bright-red line he drew for Assad in the summer of 2012 was striking… It appeared as though Obama had drawn the conclusion that damage to American credibility in one region of the world would bleed into others, and that U.S. deterrent credibility was indeed at stake in Syria. …

Obama had already ordered the Pentagon to develop target lists. Five Arleigh Burke class destroyers were in the Mediterranean, ready to fire cruise missiles at regime targets… But the president had grown queasy… The American people seemed unenthusiastic about a Syria intervention; so too did one of the few foreign leaders Obama respects, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. She told him that her country would not participate in a Syria campaign. And in a stunning development, on Thursday, August 29, the British Parliament denied David Cameron its blessing for an attack. John Kerry later told me that when he heard that, “internally, I went, Oops.”…

Late on Friday afternoon, Obama determined that he was simply not prepared to authorize a strike… He was tired of watching Washington unthinkingly drift toward war in Muslim countries… The next few days were chaotic. The president asked Congress to authorize the use of force – the irrepressible Kerry served as chief lobbyist – and it quickly became apparent in the White House that Congress had little interest in a strike. …

“I’m very proud of this moment,” he told me. “The overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus had gone fairly far. The perception was that my credibility was at stake – that America’s credibility was at stake. And so for me to press the pause button at that moment, I knew, would cost me politically. And the fact that I was able to pull back from the immediate pressures and think through in my own mind what was in America’s interest, not only with respect to Syria but also with respect to our democracy, was as tough a decision as I’ve made – and I believe ultimately it was the right decision to make.”

This was the moment the president believes he finally broke with what he calls, derisively, the “Washington playbook.”

Drum is impressed:

No wonder I like this guy so much. I’m going to miss him no matter who wins the election in November. … A couple of years ago I wrote that maintaining “credibility” was “perhaps the cause of more dumb wars than anything else in history,” and that fighting back against this notion was a “rare sign of wisdom in a president.” Basically, Obama made a mistake in setting out the red line in the first place, and eventually figured out that it was unwise to let our foreign policy be dictated by a brief, intemperate remark. That’s especially true when all the loudest hawks in Congress turn out to be a bunch of gutless armchair generals when you ask them to put their hawkishness to a roll-call vote.

In any case: good for Obama. He’s correct that this decision cost him politically. He’s also correct that it was the right decision to make. Frankly, the mere fact that it pissed off so many of our Middle East allies – who plainly care about little except having America fight their tribal battles for them – is enough to convince me. American intervention in the Middle East has generally been pretty disastrous, and it’s long past time for everyone to figure that out. That very definitely includes all the folks who are actually in the Middle East.

Goldberg does cover that:

Though he has a reputation for prudence, he has also been eager to question some of the long-standing assumptions undergirding traditional U.S. foreign-policy thinking… He has questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign-policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally… For Obama… the Middle East is a region to be avoided – one that, thanks to America’s energy revolution, will soon be of negligible relevance to the U.S. economy. …

Though he has argued, controversially, that the Middle East’s conflicts “date back millennia,” he also believes that the intensified Muslim fury of recent years was encouraged by countries considered friends of the U.S. In a meeting during APEC with Malcolm Turnbull, the new prime minister of Australia, Obama described how he has watched Indonesia gradually move from a relaxed, syncretistic Islam to a more fundamentalist, unforgiving interpretation; large numbers of Indonesian women, he observed, have now adopted the hijab, the Muslim head covering.

Why, Turnbull asked, was this happening? Because, Obama answered, the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funneled money, and large numbers of imams and teachers, into the country. In the 1990s, the Saudis heavily funded Wahhabist madrassas, seminaries that teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favored by the Saudi ruling family, Obama told Turnbull. Today, Islam in Indonesia is much more Arab in orientation than it was when he lived there, he said.

“Aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Turnbull asked.

Obama smiled. “It’s complicated,” he said.

It has to be:

Obama’s patience with Saudi Arabia has always been limited… In the White House these days, one occasionally hears Obama’s National Security Council officials pointedly reminding visitors that the large majority of 9/11 hijackers were not Iranian, but Saudi – and Obama himself rails against Saudi Arabia’s state-sanctioned misogyny, arguing in private that “a country cannot function in the modern world when it is repressing half of its population.”…

Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place.

Drum again is more than happy with this:

I understand why he can’t say stuff like this in public, but I sure wish he’d get drunk one night and blast it out as a tweetstorm. Goldberg acknowledges that the Saudis don’t trust Obama, and the reason is that they shouldn’t. Obama understands very clearly that their only real interest is in getting America to fight the kingdom’s tribal wars for it, all the while funding a brand of fundamentalist Islam that’s inherently unfriendly to the US and the West. America gets virtually nothing out of this relationship except a few military bases – which are only there to help us protect the Saudis.

Obama is no isolationist – far from it, as Goldberg makes clear. And yes, his “Spockian” personality can sometimes make his assessments seem cold and distant. But he’s basically right. The Middle East is, in his words, a “shit show,” and that’s not going to change any time soon. It’s going to be the source of a lot of wars and a lot of innocent deaths over the next few decades. If there was anything we could do about this, intervention might be worthwhile on a pure humanitarian basis even if it did little for America’s interests.

But we can’t do anything about this:

We failed in Lebanon. We failed in Iraq. We’re failing in Afghanistan. We failed in Libya. No matter how cold and distant it seems, there’s simply no reason for America to expend vast resources on an impossible task urged on us by a bunch of putative allies who are only interested in using us as a mercenary army. We should protect ourselves against the export of terrorism from the region – which might sometimes require a military solution – but that’s about it. It’s far past time to ratchet down our engagement in the region and let other countries take the lead if they really want to.

Fine, but does that project weakness? Goldberg relates that Obama may not be weak at all:

One afternoon in late January, as I was leaving the Oval Office, I mentioned to Obama a moment from an interview in 2012 when he told me that he would not allow Iran to gain possession of a nuclear weapon. “You said, ‘I’m the president of the United States, I don’t bluff.'”

He said, “I don’t.”

Shortly after that interview four years ago, Ehud Barak, who was then the defense minister of Israel, asked me whether I thought Obama’s no-bluff promise was itself a bluff. I answered that I found it difficult to imagine that the leader of the United States would bluff about something so consequential. But Barak’s question had stayed with me. So as I stood in the doorway with the president, I asked: “Was it a bluff?” I told him that few people now believe he actually would have attacked Iran to keep it from getting a nuclear weapon.

“That’s interesting,” he said, noncommittally.

I started to talk: “Do you…”

He interrupted. “I actually would have,” he said, meaning that he would have struck Iran’s nuclear facilities. “If I saw them break out.”

He added, “Now, the argument that can’t be resolved, because it’s entirely situational, was what constitutes them getting” the bomb. “This was the argument I was having with Bibi Netanyahu.” Netanyahu wanted Obama to prevent Iran from being capable of building a bomb, not merely from possessing a bomb.

“You were right to believe it,” the president said. And then he made his key point. “This was in the category of an American interest.”

Obama got an agreement that locks Iran out of the bomb-building business for a decade or two, but he knew his alternative. Is he bluffing even now? We’ll probably never know. He made that a moot point. That may be masterful. Is it weak? It doesn’t seem so. It seems clever.

There’s more, and from the UK in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman offers his ten points about the Obama doctrine that include these:

Obama’s skepticism also extends to Pakistan. The president, “privately questions why Pakistan, which he believes is a deeply dysfunctional state, should be considered an ally to the US at all.”

As far as the UK goes, there is much tougher stuff than the criticism over Libya, which attracted all the attention. I think the really striking revelation, from a British point of view, is that Obama warned Cameron that if Britain did not meet the NATO target of spending 2% of GDP on defense, the US-UK “special relationship” would be “over”. This is a pretty devastating threat for any US president to make to any UK prime minister. It also suggests that the special relationship is much more contingent than many sentimentalists on both sides of the Atlantic would like to believe.

Who knew? And there’s this:

The pivot to Asia is for real. Goldberg writes that the president is “fixated on turning America’s attention towards Asia”. And “For Obama Asia represents the future”. Obama is not fatalistic about increasing US rivalry with China. Interestingly, he seems to think that a weakening of the Chinese economy increases the risk because it makes it more likely that China will “resort to nationalism as an organizing principle”. By contrast, Hillary Clinton seems to be more worried by a strong China. She is quoted as saying – “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”

Oh well, she’s running for office and there are a few votes to be had in saying that, but this is more important:

Commenting on the Syria decision, Goldberg writes that “History may record August 30, 2013, as the day Obama prevented the US from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war, and the day he removed the threat of a chemical attack on Israel, Turkey, or Jordan. Or it could be remembered as the day he let the Middle East slip from America’s grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran, and ISIS.”

But, of course, both propositions could be true.

Both are true, but Putin just gave up on Assad. The Middle East is not in Russia’s grasp – they just want someone in Syria that’s not a murderous jerk. They need stability where they have a Mediterranean port. It’s just business and they’d rather not have a long proxy war with the United States. Do we want that? Everyone wins here – except Donald Trump.

That may be too glowing of an assessment. Josef Joffe certainly thinks so:

Teaching U.S. foreign policy at Stanford, I had been waiting for a piece like “The Obama Doctrine” for seven long years. Missing among reams of adulation and vituperation directed at the president was an intimate, yet dispassionate look like Jeffrey Goldberg’s that would help my students penetrate the most puzzling presidency since America’s entry into the great-power system, circa 1917.

Who is this Barack Obama, where does he fit into the traditional matrix of American thought on foreign policy: realism vs. idealism, isolation vs. intervention, power politics vs. liberal institutionalism? Above all, how to crack the mother of all mysteries: Is Obama overseeing the self-containment, or “self-disempowerment,” of the mightiest nation on earth?

Normally, starring powers are pushed off center-stage by more muscular players, as were the Habsburg Empire, France, and Britain in earlier centuries. Yet Obama’s America has been slinking off without duress. To sharpen the puzzle, Goldberg quotes the King of Jordan: “I think I believe in American power more than Obama does.”

Of course, it made sense back at the beginning of the Obama era, in 2009, to go for retrenchment instead of overreach. The U.S. was stuck in two endless wars while battling financial catastrophe. Afghanistan and Iraq were trillion-dollar power failures dramatizing America’s inability to buy order with brute force. Obama’s terse prescription was on target: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Fine, but that’s nonsense:

So no more regime change or nation-building. Now what? “You could call me a realist in believing we can’t relieve all the world’s misery,” Obama muses to Goldberg. True enough. It is also true that realism is about the economy of power, which dictates the cold-eyed distinction between peripheral and “direct” threats, as Obama has it. Keep soaring ends in line with inherently limited means; that is another unassailable principle.

The devil is in the execution. In Obama’s mind, the Syrian Civil War does not constitute a direct threat; nor does Vladimir Putin’s lunge into Ukraine. For Obama, as Goldberg paraphrases No. 44, “the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests”; even if it were, “an American president could do little to make it a better place.” All told, in Goldberg’s words, Obama believes that the “the price of direct U.S. action would be higher than the price of inaction.”

But that’s the problem:

Realism is more complicated. A realist knows that distant threats, if ignored, can turn into direct ones. Hence, the “precautionary principle” – better to act than wait in the face of risks not fully known – that is so dear to climate warriors like Obama serves as another pillar of the realist faith. A realist also knows that the international system, like nature, abhors a vacuum – so ambitious rivals will interpret inaction as invitation. Even that ur-isolationist Thomas Jefferson grasped the simplest rule of realism: Power calls for counter-power. “None of us wish to see Bonaparte conquer Russia,” he wrote in 1814. “This done, England would be but a breakfast. … It cannot be to our interest that all Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy.”

The Romans had a word for it: principiis obsta, meaning “resist the beginnings” to avoid an unpleasant end. Syria is a perfect case study. Obama drew his vaunted “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria before Bashar al-Assad massacred civilians with sarin, a nerve gas, in 2013. But instead of making true on the threat of an American military response, Obama pulled back and invited the Russians in, never mind that Henry Kissinger had essentially kicked them out of the Middle East in the 1970s – pushing them out of Egypt, Russia’s main stronghold in the region, by bringing then-President Anwar al-Sadat into the American camp. Mr. Putin was delighted to oblige Mr. Obama, and there went 40 years of American primacy in the world’s most critical arena.

Today, the Russians are back in force, posing a deadly risk to anybody who would dislodge them from the Levant.

Ah, no… they just stepped back. They dislodged themselves from the Levant, and really, what did our forty years of American primacy in the world’s most critical arena get us anyway? It got us 9/11 and all that followed. Joffe may be the last of the neocons – the Bush Doctrine folks – if another nation may be a threat in the future, remove its government before it has the means to act on possible evil intentions, and if possible, before it even forms those intentions – better safe than sorry. That’s extreme principiis obsta – it didn’t work out well. Someone should remind Trump and the other Republican candidates about that. Mention it to Hillary too. She was the one who wanted to escalate in Libya and Syria. Obama said no.

Actually, that seems to be the Obama Doctrine. Obama said no. Relative inaction can work wonders. But he’ll be gone soon enough. Now let’s talk about Donald Trump. We’re going to win everything, always, right? That’s going to look like losing. Oh well, the Obama Doctrine was nice while it lasted.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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