The U.S.’ strategic position in the Middle East is becoming increasingly muddled by internal conflicts in the Obama Administration’s strategy.
For one thing, Washington finds itself engaged in a conflict with the Russians through surrogates in the complex Syrian civil war. Moscow supports the regime of Basher al Assad whose ruthlessness against its internal enemies now seven years ago turned popular peaceful demonstrations into an escalating armed conflict.
Obama gave tepid support, if from time to time withdrawing behind red lines he had drawn. to a small democratic position to al Assad. But it has been virtually annihilated in the growing conflict against the regime led by various terrorist groups, including Daesh [ISIS or ISIL] and al Qaeda. The most recent episode has been a devastating attack by Russian aircraft on a splinter of the democratic moderates ostensibly supported by Washington. The growing success of Daesh in Syria, of course, becomes a problem on the larger screen for Washington who is still pondering how to curtail its growing worldwide influence, including on so=called American “lone wolf” terrorists.
A minor crisis ensued when the Russians a few days ago bombed a group of anti-al Assad rebels backed by Washington. Moscow, apparently attempting to avoid a more open conflict with the U.S., claims its bombers were not informed adequately about the nature of the largely civilian population it attacked. But that seems a lame excuse given the access of the Russians not only to al Assad’s intelligence but the increasingly active participation of the Tehran mullahs, now cozying up to the Russians.
The U.S. position, too, is becoming less transparent and more committed with its alliance to the Saudis who support rebel Syrian groups. Inferentially, the U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry’s solution, a negotiated settlement which would see the departure of al Assad, seems further away than ever. Negotiations among all the parties in Geneva have achieved little more than a further definition of their varying positions.
The American position has become even more confused with the denunciation of the earlier aspects of the problem by a memorandum signed by 51 career foreign service officers. Leaked to the mainstream media, it blames the Obama Administration for refusing to pursue a policy of destruction of the al Assad regime. Aside from a violation of the unspoken code of ethics among career appointees to contain their opposition to policy within official channels, the memo seems tries to shut the barn door after the horse had long been stolen. That may have been a solution early on in the Syrian Civil War, but with al Assad at least temporarily improving his position with growing Russian and Iranian assistance, it hardly seems an answer to the present difficulties.
Critics of the American diplomats’ position point out it offers no solution to the current military impasse. The danger, of course, is that Vladimir Putin, up against European and American opposition in his seizure of Crime, and efforts to dominate Ukraine, and his threats to the Baltic States, may overplay his hand. A further escalation by Russian forces in Syria, with the likelihood they could defeat al Assad’s internal opposition, would help solve the growing problem of Islamic terrorism, a threat to Moscow as it its to other powers. But it would likely require an American response rather than see the Russians – with their new Tehran mullahs’ assistance – reestablish a strategic hold in one of the Mideast’s most important states.
The Russian threat, in part, has already forced the Israelis – on not very good terms with the Obama Administration – into a series of personal negotiating trips to Moscow by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. How far Netanyahu is coordinating these negotiations with the Obama Administration isn’t altogether clear. Nor is the Chinese position, although of lesser importance, apparent.
One thing does seem obvious. The Obama Administration is rapidly losing any ability to influence the outcome of the Syrian civil war. With so many players – and such enormous potential impact on its Arab neighbors – that becomes another major defeat for Obama’s foreign policy and another hot potato he is leaving for his successor next year, whoever he may be and however qualified to deal with the situation.
Category Archives: Kerry
The U.S.’ strategic position in the Middle East is becoming increasingly muddled by internal conflicts in the Obama Administration’s strategy.
There is a wild Russian folkdance, like so many Russian cultural artifacts linked to the Tartar Occupation, called the kasatka [ka-zatch-ka]. In one of its many forms, it tests the dancer’s calisthenics by having him crouch but fling out each leg and foot alternately, testing his balance and the nerves of those aroumd him.
Vladimir Putin, old secret service operator that he is with some inherited talents of the Soviet regime but steeped in Russian folkways, has been dancing a katsatka around Pres. Barack Obama. And the effect is as usual unnerving to the encircled and annihilates whatever more formal and customary dance routine the imprisoned spectator might have pursued.
When Obama first suggested an aggressive American role in Syria, but then quickly reneged, Putin saw his chance. After his aggression in George, Crimea and Ukraine, and continuing threats elsewhere, he had unnerved the European Union and the U.S. It was to the point that they, however reluctantly, threatened formal resistance. And they did go as far as sanctions against the Russian leading lights around Putin.
But Putin has enough sense of history to know that bluff can often be successful, especially if like lies – as Hitler’s propagandist Josef Goebbels said – they are ambitious enough. So Putin plunged into Syria, set up the beginning of bases on the coast, and backed his would-be host, the collapsing regime of Basher Al Assad. The effort had great psychological and propaganda value, for Syria had once been the Soviet Union’s Mediterranean anchor, and a return there hinted at a return of Moscow to world leadership.
So the kasatka began. Putin’s oncoming disaster at home with the West’s sanctions and the collapsing oil price for Russia’s only export certainly left Putin in a precarious crouching position. But he flung his military, however much its technological stars and nuclear armory, still the decrepit carcass of the once grand Soviet war machine, far overcommitted into the Syrian row. His aircraft indiscriminately committing atrocities against a highly vulnerable civilian population, and his highly trained special forces encadred al Assad’s old professional French-styled Syrian army, were able to turn the tide against the multi-head opposition. That was especially true since neither Washington nor its allies could pull together demoralized Syrian democrats, and all were trying to keep their distance from al Assad’s main jidhadist opposition.
But then with a new kasatka thrust, Putin grabbed Obama’s gallivanting Secretary of State’s effort to set up an armistice and peace conference. The armistice gave Putin some respite from his overtaxed kasatka thrusts. His dance had so wearied Kerry & Co. that the conferees agreed to gather in Vienna, even though they clearly had totally opposite positions: Washington was demanding that al Assad go, the Kremlin had staked its successful dance on his remaining in office. With the long and ugly history of such conferences throughout the post-World War II history, between the West and the Communists, it was clear Putin’s kasatka meant he would whittle down the American/EU position. With successful negotiations always Washington’s primary target, negotiating with an opponent who does not give ground, ultimately always means the U.S. makes the concessions.
So Putin’s kasatka continues. The latest fling of the limbs is to “order” the Russian military out of Syria. Crouched as he is, he dearly needs to end his commitment before it collapses. But his kasatka presents this as great concession of a noble and enlightened opponent, and, of course, he has made no firm commitment on date nor which and what he will withdraw. In fact, as so often happened with Soviet promises of cooperation, the withdrawal might not take place at all, were he not in an overextended position that he needs to withdraw.
The kasatka never quite ends with any final tour de force. Usually the dancer is so exhausted he just leaves off. That may well be the case with Putin’s dance around the bemused Obama, trying desperately to make something of historical moment of the few months of his last tenure in the presidency. After all, the kasatka has achieved its purpose – it’s rescued Putin from economic collapse, at least for the moment, and has bolstered his flagging domestic support by a feint at the old Soviet international glory.
Among the many anomalies of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, none appear so anachronistic as its refusal to label the persecution and annihilation of Christians in the Middle East as genocide.
Granted that the term has been too often thrown around carelessly, used incorrectly as a synonym for prejudice and persecution of minorities. It does of course have a specific meaning. In the 1948 United Nations Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide it was defined as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” including by the means of “killing members of the group.”
The stubborn refusal of the Obama White House and State Department to apply it to current events in the Mideast is therefore something of a mystery. Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Azidis and other religious minorities have been driven from their ancestral homes in Iraq and Syria or have been slaughtered during the rise of Daesh [ISIS or ISIL].
Iraq’s Christian population 10 years ago was about 1.5 million, but now is estimated at only 500,000. In Syria, of the 1.1 million Christians, about 600,000 have fled or died. Christians have been tortured, raped and even crucified. Mosul, Iraq, which was home to 35,000 is now empty of Christians after an ISIS ultimatum that they either convert to Islam or be executed. In Syria, Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of the Church of Antioch, reported “entire villages” have been “cleared of their Christian inhabitants.”
American human rights activists – Jews as well as Christians – have called on the Obama Administration to admit Christian refugees to the U.S. under special quotas In an ironic twist, American policy now discriminates against Mideast Christian entry. The State Department accepts refugees from lists prepared by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees which oversees large refugee camps in the Mideast. However, endangered Christians do not dare enter these camps where they have been attacked by fellow Moslem refugees.
Christian groups and human rights and religious freedom advocates have been calling on the Obama administration to label the situation as a “genocide” — arguing that the terminology would help to bring a global community response to the crisis. But Secretary of State John Kerry told Congress last week that he is having an “additional evaluation” to help him determine whether the systematic murder of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East should be declared “genocide.” Earlier White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest conceded that the Obama administration’s hesitation to label the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians and other religious minorities as “genocide” is because of the legal ramifications. Kerry was responding to Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R.-Neb.), sponsor of a resolution that would declare on behalf of Congress that the slaughter of Christians is in fact genocide.
The Administration’s hesitation appears to be part of its general effort to find common ground with Moslem regimes in the Middle East, many of whom have long placed restrictions on Christian religious practice or looked the other way when violence occurred. This is after all an Administration which refuses use the words “Islamic radical” or “Islamic terror”and coming to the defense of the Christians in the region would clearly not fit into their strategy.
But U.S. Christian groups are demanding that the label genocide be invoked and that the Administration come up with a program to end it. Co-sponsored by an organization called In Defense of Christians and the Knights of Columbus, a petition is being promoted with a new nationwide TV ad. The ad includes quotes by presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio endorsing a genocide declaration, a position supported by 55 percent of Americans, according to a 2015 K of C-Marist poll. The signers “implore” Secretary Kerry “to speak up on behalf of these brutalized minority populations and urge him “to declare that Christians, along with Yazidis and other vulnerable minorities, are targets of ongoing genocide.”
Out of this world!
The mystery of what goes through Pres. Barak Obama’s mind continues to grow apace.
The theme of his latest press conference, before he took off for a Hawaii vacation stopping enroute to console victims of San Bernardino whom he has largely ignored, was delusional. That’s a fierce adjective, and a frightening one, to throw at the president of the United States.
But Obama boasted that “[S]ince taking this office, I’ve never been more optimistic about a year ahead than I am right now.”
It is customary for politicians, even those at the highest echelons, to trim the facts. But Obama’s exposition of the current national and international is phenomenal.
He claims a record of creating jobs through his seven years in office. To what extent Obama Administration’s policies has contributed to the current slow recoveryis at least debatable. But his presentation of unemployment which has undergone Labor Department “creative accounting”is phenomenal. All of us know through personal encounters the vast numbers of people who have withdrawn from the labor market because there are no jobs. The rate of growth of rate of jobs, of course, is a misnomer because of the depth of the financial crisis of 2007-08 and they had no place to go but up.
His claims for Obamacare are equally bogus. One can point to figures for those now required to adhere to health insurance or face penalties. But what about the tens of thousands of employers who limiting employment in order not to be forced into the law. And, of course, there are the hundreds of thousands who have seen their former insurance plans canceled. It is also a moot point whether the growth rate in medical costs – as much a function of growing and expensive technology as the inflation – have decreased for reasons of public policy. Far more important, alas! has been the individual health care recipient’s need to cut back on expenses, even health care.
On the question of climate change, Obama continues to muddle the waters refusing to acknowledge that there are two very complicated arguments. One is of course the possibility as has happened through the ages, that climate is changing. The other, much more debatable, is the extent to which human activity is significantly affecting that change. As an example of the shallowness of many of his partisans’ arguments is the enormous amount vapors thrown into the atmosphere 1500 active volcanoes. The Paris meeting he boasts of did have some 200 nations signing on to a recognition of climate change, but the fundamental thrust of American policy, that is, to get everyone to cut down on emissions, went a–glimmering.
The President continues to insist that he has an agreement with Iran to halt their production of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear bombs. Repeatedly various elements of the Iranian regime have stated publicly there is no agreement. And at the very moment he was making the claim again, the UN Atomic Energy Commission which had tried unsuccessfully to ride herd on the Tehran mullahs, admitted it had failed to detect earlier movement toward weaponry. Obama spoke, too, just after the mullahs have tested their intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable if perfected of carrying weapons to the US, one of the prohibitions in the supposed “deal” with the mullahs.
Obama crowed over a compromise he made with the Congress to permit oil exports after four decades of laws forbidding them. To get this past his veto pen, in order to create thousands of new jobs and return Washington’s political as well as economic clout in world energy markets, Congressional Republics had to agree to new billions poured into subsidies for so-called green energies. Yes, that too, creates jobs but at what cost while the national debt continues to skyrocket!
No, Mr. President, your transformation may be a success in your own mind but at the cost of squeezing the taxpayer yet again and imperiling the whole economy.
Putin wins a round
When Pres. Barack Obama meets Vladimir Putin Monday at the UN in New York, it will be a minor victory for the Russian president, even if as the White House suggests, it was Moscow who asked for the date.
Putin, with his back to the wall, is trying to maneuver his way out of a deep crisis. The combination of the collapse of oil and gas prices, Russia’s economic mainstay, the Western sanctions placed on some members of Putin’s coterie because of his aggression in Ukraine, and his upcoming elections, all test what has become a Sovietized regime.
Although the Russians had made some progress toward reequipping their military, putting an expeditionary force into Syria was an enormous gamble on Putin’s part. He hopes to maintain a role in what many see as the approaching climax in the gruesome four-year Syrian civil war. The al Assad regime may be on its last legs, even though its opponents are divided among Islamic terrorists clawing as much at each other as at the Damascus regime. Putin may, in fact, simply be setting up a Mediterranean enclave for Al Assad’s minority Allawite sect which has dominated his government, if the country finally disintegrates.
The traditional love affair between German business and the Russians is not faring well now that Europe has other cheaper options for its energy imports. But the avalanche of Syrian refugees [and a host of other economic migrants masquerading as Syrians] is putting pressure on the Europeans to come to terms with some sort of Syrian settlement in which Putin hopes to play a role.
Putin’s tacit alliance with Iran to support the al Assad regime, however, makes him a player in the Syrian debacle while the Obama Administration is now totally bereft of influence there. Furthermore, despite public pronouncements to the contrary, Washington’s traditional allies in the region – Israel, Egypt, the Saudis and the other Gulf states – are all making their own deals where they can. They all share the common fear of an increasingly powerful Iran, now that an agreement with the U.S. has made them a threshold nuclear power.
It was a terrible indictment of Obama’s policies that Israeli Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu had to go to Moscow last week with officials of his Israel Defense Forces to try to sort out any possibility of conflict with the new Russian forces in Syria. Jerusalem has to continue its efforts to halt further strengthening of Hezbollah, the Iranian ally in support al Assad, which presumably would be sicked on Israel if sought to unilaterally end Tehran’s nuclear threat. Whether Netanyahu actually achieved that goal remains to be seen but its American ally was not a player there either.
In recent speeches, Putin has put out proposals for an accomodation with the Americans, restoring the old image of Moscow as a superpower. But by stepping up his support of al Assad, he is crossing one of Obama’s famous red lines, that is, that the beginning of any settlement in Syria had to be the exit of the Syrian president. It was, after all, al Assad’s refusal to make any concessions to what began as peaceful demonstrations against the regime’s dictatorial policies which degenerated into the bloody contest. And al Assad more than anyone else is responsible for the estimated 250,000 casualties of the conflict and the millions of refugees who have fled the country.
Putin has said publicly that his protégé al Assad is ready to consider a coalition with leaders of the Syrian opposition – although Tehran, a more important backer of the regime – has yet to be heard from. But such negotiations could take months to achieve even a modicum of success, leaving one more mess for the next American president to try to wipe up.
One of the most fundamental principles of the American constitutional system is the institution of civilian dominance and control of the military. The Founders, concerned with so many possibilities of the usurpation of liberty by an aggrandizing central government, had strong views on the subject. Thomas Jefferson, whose duties in Europe kept him from being a direct participant at the Constitutional Convention, abhorred even the idea of a standing military. But he found, alas!, its necessity when in his own presidency an issue he personally had struggled with diplomatically for a decade, piracy along the Barbary Coast, necessitated he order military action by the young Republic.
As with most fundamental constitutional issues, implementation of a lofty however beneficent concept has not always been easy. The power to go to war resides with The Congress. But fighting any conflict, now excruciatingly if less than perfectly laid out in repeated legislation, is left to the President as head of the executive and therefore commander in chief of the armed forces.
In more recent times, crises have developed over differences between what the professional military see as threats to the Republic and the Oval Office’s estimate, granted, a wider view of U.S. interests. The line between bringing their point of view not only to the President, but to the people/electorate, has also been a difficult one to tread since the essence of military evaluations and strategy is secrecy.
When the famous war hero Gen. Douglas Macarthur argued during the stalemated Korean War that only confrontation with Communist China would win the day, Pres. Harry Truman demurred – not the least because he feared a nuclear confrontation. Macarthur was forced to step down, honored in the breach by the public through a dramatic farewell to the Congress, but losing his argument as he began “to fade away” in his own famous phrase despite his own and his well-wishers’ presidential ambitions. Geopoliticians and historians will argue forever whether Truman’s policy which prevailed did not, in fact, create a permanent threat to world peace as Macarthur had argued but on the other hand avoided a catastrophic war with Communist China.
Another less flamboyant but equally important crisis arose when Pres. Jimmy Carter moved to withdraw American forces on that same Peninsular in order to defuse the continuing provocations from Communist North Korea. The consensus among American military was then – as now – that Korea was “a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan”, and that American military presence there was an essential part of the Cold War strategy. No one, either on the military or the civilian side of any postwar Administration has questioned Japan’s keystone role in any Asian or world strategy. But when John K. Singlaub, a highly-decorated former OSS officer, a founding member of Central Intelligence Agency [CIA], criticized Carter’s position in a Washington Post interview, he was recalled as U.S. Commander in South Korea. Singlaub, drummed out of military service, continued campaigning for the eventual successful reversing of Carter’s original initiative.
There is growing evidence that a similar crisis is brewing now between the American military and Pres. Obama and his closest advisers. Major concessions to the Iranians at the Lausanne negotiations in an effort to head off an Iranian nuclear weapon is seen by the Obama Administration as a cardinal foreign policy goal. But the exclusion of such critical elements as the Mullahs’ sponsorship of Hizbollah and Hamas as well as other worldwide terrorism from those negotiations obviously sticks in the craw of those charged with worldwide military strategy.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, although virtually ignored by the mainstream media put it forthrightly while visiting Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon in Israel on June 9th: “[If current sanctions were removed] I think they [the Iranians] will invest in their surrogates; I think they will invest in additional military capability.” That clashes violently with Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew’s claim a bit earlier that “most of the money Iran receives from sanctions relief will not [emphasis in original] be used to support those activities.”
Dempsey, reappointed to a second term as Obama’s chairman of the joint chiefs in 2013, will be retiring shortly. Obviously, there is speculation about his refusal to tackle these issues more publicly in the U.S. Giving him the benefit of the doubt about his motivations, it is likely that old conundrum of a dissident public servant, whether to remain inside the magic circle to work against current policy, or create the kind of scandal Macarthur and Singlaub felt was necessary to change policy. But it seems unlikely that whatever Dempsey decides to do in his last few months, this issue will continue to be batted back and forth across the policy/strategy gap between 1600 Pennsylvania and The Pentagon for the year and a half remaining of the Obama Administration. And it is too important an issue for The Congress to continue to ignore in its own deliberations.
The proponents of trade wherever, whenever, whoever tell us that Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was taken aback at the reception he received this past week. For he was treated, at the State Dept., and elsewhere like a chief of government or state rather than the head of one of the most corrupt and repressive political organizations in the world.
The rationalization we are getting for all this pomp and circumstance was that fetting Phu Trong was throwing a little sand into Beijing’s eyes. The theory thereby being expounded was that with the continuing aggressive Chinese thrusts into the South China Sea – even a drilling rig in Hanoi’s claimed economic zone – Washington was demonstrating the growing tacit alliance with Vietnam as well as the other Southeast Asians against Beijing’s threatened aggression. Presidential candidate, then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton called it the pivot to Asia which has creaked rather violently as the Mideast continues to enthrall the U.S. in its tortured problems.
Of course, the fact that Boeing – probably with the dying Ex-Im Bank’s help – has just made a big sale to the Vietnamese might explain more than either State Dept. Protocol officers. Pres. Obama turned up at State. [Sec. John Kerry who once testified against his fellow American soldiers in Vietnam, if in camouflage, at a Congressional hearing was too busy trying to make a deal with the Tehran Mullahs in Lausanne.]
Obama told the gathering at State that “[O]bviously, there has been a difficult history between our two countries in the 20th century.” That could go down as the understatement of the year; one would have hoped a speechwriter even at this White House might have chosen a more profound reference to “a difficult history” that cost more than 54,000 American and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives.
True, history marches as they say, and it is probably time to try to reach some sort of working relationship with Hanoi that fits into the current and future Asian and world geopolitical picture. Obama claimed “what we’ve seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect, and that has benefitted the peoples of both countries.”
Maybe. But we are old enough to be uncomfortable with a former enemy who still shows every sign of not mending his ways. Persecution of the religious and all political opposition is still the way Phu Trong’s comrades run the Vietnam they reunited with force in 1975. Corruption is so rife foreign investors shy away from moving there even with the increasing flight from China because of rising costs and the same sort of difficulties as Vietnam presents. The $7 billion in remittances this year from the huge and relatively prosperous Vietnamese American community are a big part of keeping the whole gimcrackery afloat.
All in all, we think it’s best if the President – and those minions at State always willing to find diplomatic compromise – remember the old adage, “When supping with the devil …”
There seems to be something about the problems of immigration that remove common sense from the politicians’ heads – and the general debate — about what to do about our broken system.
The past few days events in San Francisco when an illegal immigrant [not, not an “undocumented immigrant”], apparently drunk or on drugs, murdered an innocent bystander on one of that beautiful city’s most cherished walkways demand action. They have demonstrated a part of the problem that needs fixing and ought not be too hard to do if we still have a regime of law. The alleged killer had been deported out of the country five times after a series of drug related and other crimes. But he was back in the country and had taken refuge in San Francisco, apparently because he knew he would not be turned over to the federal immigration authorities because of that city’s policy of “sanctuary”.
It turns out most major cities have laws or by executive order forbid municipal employees and police to assist federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials in efforts to investigate or arrest illegal immigrants. Many of those same cities permit illegals to secure an official municipal identification paper, enabling them to hold bank accounts, rent with leases or even buy real estate, or in most cases even have access to welfare and other city services. In many instances the courts have blocked state governments from moving in on their cities to end these practices after being heavily lobbied by interest groups.
These municipal policies were originally the work of churches and faith-based organizations and “progressive” forces on the left to aid hundreds of thousands of reputed victims of political repression, civil war and economic distress in Mexico and Central America. When the federal government enacted laws to make deportation of illegals easier in 1996, these humanitarians became even more active in defying federal law. We suspect, too, that there is more than just a little hypocrisy here; that it isn’t just the conscience of the believing community but employers including wealthier householders seeking domestic help that are at the root of flouting the law.
Add that to the grossly ineffective repeated efforts, by legislation and appropriation, to actually seal out southern border, and you end up with two of the three essential elements of our immigration muckup. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has, by throwing state resources including his national guard, into the vacuum shown that the hotspots on the border can be closed. Until that is done, all the talk about the third problem, the 12 [or is it 11?] million illegals in the country cannot be dealt with. [By the way, can someone please tell us how we know the number if we cannot identify them for deportation.]
But a beginning of some rationality in this situation is to call a halt to the whole concept of municipal “sanctuary”. If that takes additional federal legislation, we think a proper campaign by the Republicans in Congress could convince the public that it has to be done.
Objectivity is one of the greatest assets in any human intellectual encounter. But no concept can be so easily abused in the white heat of crisis. And it can become a false front for a failure to come to grips with the issues at hand. For it can easily metamorphous into the belief that we are able to see beyond the current issues and put them in a broad historical perspective.
That is one of the conceits of the present pseudo-intellectuals of the Obama Administration. The fact is that politicians, even those who graduate to statesmen, are not historians except in some very rare instances. So it is better left to our progeny to determine the longer-term results of the current crises and their outcomes. In terms of national policy, we have enough on our hands in simply meeting the demands of the hour for what clearly can be seen in the here and now as a danger to national security. Even that essential concept is a difficult one to measure at any given moment.
To do otherwise has led, in part, to the current incapacity of American leadership to cope with half a dozen threatening geopolitical disasters around the world. It is expressed in the pomposity of the belief of policymakers in the White House that can always maintain sangfroid above the fray. It leads them to believe that because they are all knowing about all the issues, even viewed from the perspective of opponents or enemies, they are able to couch compromises which would satisfy all parties. As a corollary, they see the pursuit of methods of exchanging views, however contradictory and inconclusive, as the end-all of all international relations.
So, instead of devoting all our resources to coordinating our allies in reinforcing the ability of Ukraine to meet continuing Russian aggression, for example, the Obama Administration lectures Vladimir Putin on his failure to understand a new international morality and thereby jeopardizes his role in history. I can’t imagine the master of the Kremlin with all his ambitions and current problems arising from them cares much for this uninvited counsel on his legacy.
Objectivity in formulating a foreign policy requires above all knowing what our own national interests are and pursuing them to the full extent possible. True, that is easier said than done. But it is the height of arrogance – and stupidity – to believe that one knows the irreconcilable interests of both parties to a dispute; it is more than enough to have clearly defined and registered our own.
So when an Obama Administration spokesman at the highest level of the national Security Council publicly presents the U.S. complaints of a near collision by a Chinese fighter and an American surveillance aircraft, he must present Washington’s case. [Never mind that the highly sensitive role of State Department spokesman permanently has been turned over to an Obama political campaign hack.] To natter on about the on-again off-again of Washington’s longtime pursuit of direct military to military communication as a principle issue in the affair is to miss its essence. It is less than clear that a military “hot line” could have prevented the episode or ameliorated it after it took place
The incident took place over international waters. The American aircraft was within its rights to make observations of the region, including those of Chinese military operations. The Chinese fighter plane pilot risked the lives of himself and the U.S. crew by coming within yards of the U.S. aircraft. His “barrel roll” over the American plane, apparently intended to show he was carrying missiles, was an adolescent antic. Those were the points that had to be made in any public statement, presumably and hopefully reflecting what had been said in a diplomatic note to the Chinese.
The Chinese leadership and the general public might also have been reminded that a similar episode which took place in the same general region on April 1, 2001, resulting in the death of the Chinese fight pilot and a forced landing on Chinese territory of the American plane. Given all these facts, it is unlikely American intelligence knows whether the Chinese pilot was a “rogue” or operating on instructions from the highest Red Army military command. And so instantaneous communication between the highest U.S. and Chinese military echelons is totally irrelevant to the event. And, in fact, it is another demonstration that the Obama Administration’s constant search for “modalities” is a preoccupation that ignores the country’s basic interests.
Over and over again, it leads the Obama Administration into diplomatic disasters. Only this kind of reasoning, warped as it is by egos larger than knowledge, could lead the American self-appointed negotiators into equating the roles of Israel and Hamas in the current warfare. When Sec. of State John Kerry proposed that Turkey and Qatar be the intermediaries, he not only exposed this falsity of moral equivalence, but he blew himself and his role up. That was Qatar whose feudal dictator poured tens of millions into Hamas’ tunnels to penetrate Israel defenses or Turkey which cultivates the generally acknowledge terrorists of Hamas.
Even an Israeli Establishment never far from having to acknowledge publicly and privately its dependence on U.S. support in a region surrounded by its enemies, had no choice but to come down with an emphatic “no”. The negotiations were returned to Egypt’s military – which Kerry has continued to insult with his courtship of the Moslem Brotherhood, even though U.S. military and economic aid continues to the Cairo regime. That Kerry [and presumably his boss The President] did not realize they were walking into a blank wall could only come from their distorted concept of an all-knowing “objectivity” that can manage any situation.
We must take positions. Our weakness in the West is born of the fact of so-called ‘objectivity.’ Objectivity does not exist – it cannot exist!… The word is a hypocrisy which is sustained by the lie that the truth stays in the middle. No, sir: Sometimes truth stays on one side only. Oriana Fallaci
As usual, there are more questions than answers about the current Middle East situation. And, for that matter, there is difficulty following the gyrations of Obama Administration policy.
But there is growing evidence a defiant Israel, stoic in the face of Hamas’ ability to exploit the misery of its own making for Gaza’s 1.8 million and growing pressure from the Obama Administration for an indecisive ceasefire. Jerusalem appears dedicated to the destruction of the most dynamic terrorist organization in the Mideast. Successful demilitarization of Gaza would not only remake the Israel-Palestine relationship but could be the world’s first conclusive victory in the war on Islamic terrorism. In a rapidly evolving situation, not only changing conditions but loyalties and alliances is breathtaking.
Here are some basic considerations:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is beset with the typical domestic Israeli ideological in-fighting, from peace advocates on the left to proponents of reoccupation of Gaza on the right. But he rides a wellspring of domestic support, despite heavy casualties, for refusing a temporary compromise with Hamas such as those in 2008, 2009 and 20012 . Furthermore, what is seen now as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s 2004-5 unilateral Gaza withdrawal and destruction of its four Israeli Settlements has further discredited “land for peace” – that is abandoning 1967 conquests of the locales of the historic Hebrew kingdoms for a “two state solution”. But the Israeli public is still absorbing the evidence of a major intelligence failure in underestimating Hamas’ capacities with its sophisticated tunneling operations. That surge of suicide bombing, mayhem and kidnapping was planned for September 2014 Rosh Hashanah [Jewish New Year]—to take advantage of a Jewish holiday, an echo of the Arab surprise of the 1973 Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] War. It remains to be seen, of course, whether Jerusalem with the tacit concurrence of Cairo, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Mohammed Abbas’ Fatah movement, will have the stomach for completing of Hamas decimation.
Destruction of Hamas would be a severe blow to Tehran’s mullahs, who have used it as a further diversion from demands by the U.S., Israel and other American allies to halt the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons. It was not only that Hamas represents part of the strategic pincers in the south with Iranian supported Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the north against any Israeli attempt to take out Iranian nuclear weapon potential. But the ability of Shia Iran’s Revolutionary Guard to jump the deadly 1600-year-old sectarian divide to support Hamas as a product of the ultra-anti-Shia Sunni Moslem Brotherhood. The Tehran-Gaza alliance unites Islamic terror in a way not seen before. Even Iran’s traditional enemy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, now reaching for ultimate power in the Turkish presidential elections this fall as he moves closer to the Brotherhood, had also become one of Hamas’ patrons. Will the Tehran mullahs watch this asset fall apart, or would they, for example, finally unleash Hezbollah and its missiles on Israel’s north in order to try to rescue the Hamas remnant?
Contrary to the 2012 Gaza ‘truce” when Mohammed Morsi rode the wave of a Moslem Brotherhood electoral victory, Pres. Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi sees Hamas as an enemy. The ruling Egyptian military is in a brutal campaign to wipe out the Brotherhood’s domestic political and paramilitary following. Furthermore, Hamas’ Iranian connection on Egypt’s doorstep imperils Cairo’s traditional political and cultural leadership of the Arab and Muslim world. Tacit military cooperation with the Israelis is restoring Egypt’s control over Sinai and presumably would close the smuggling routes for longer-range Iranian missiles and other weaponry reaching Hamas through the Red Sea and Sudan. It remains to be seen if al Sisi can maneuver a ceasefire/truce in tacit cooperation with the Israelis which will dismantle Hamas’ military as a minimum while all the while paying enough homage to Gazan victims to quiet the Arab Street’s overall sympathies for the Palestinian cause.
This tiny little Gulf sheikhdom with only 2 million people – if the highest per capita income in the world from its enormous gas reserves – has taken a hit. That’s because Qatar’s al Thani family’s high stakes game of playing all sides included being the principal backer of Hamas. It was not only Qatar’s financing but IT controls which permitted Hamas to launch thousands of missiles at Israel from its sophisticated tunnels, protecting them from air power and preparing a growing terrorist plot against Israel. While Qatar played a principal role in the Obama Administration’s “lead from behind” in toppling Muamar Qadaffi in Libya, it is the principal funder for the jihadists against Washington-backed moderates seeking overturn of the al Basher regime in Damascus. Qatar also was middleman in swapping of five Taliban commanders imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held for five years by the Taliban/ Although it has the smallest military force in the region – 11,800 conscripts – Washington sold it $11 billion in weapons earlier this year including anti-aircraft missiles and looking forward to a major fighter purchase later. This was the price for use of a major air base where Washington strategists attempt to coordinate defense for all the Gulf states against an increasingly menacing Iran. Washington reached agreement to continue to operate and maintain troops at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base at least through 2024, having moved there when Saudi Arabia reversed course after originally hosting U.S. forces during the Gulf Wars. Qatar’s bitter feud with Saudi Arabia, restrictions on the use of the base and meddling in its Gulf neighbor’s domestic politics limit that cooperation. A collapse of Hamas could prejudice the whole shaky network of Qatar’s activities, perhaps demanding a new American strategy to oppose Tehran in the Gulf rather the dawdling talks extended for four months which are neither inhibiting Tehran’s weapons progress, and now lightened sanctions, are restoring its economy.
Admission that three UN Gaza schools stored Hamas armaments [then returned to Hamas] is finally giving currency to the region’s greatest “secret”, the 70-year-old effort of the UNRWA, a highly paid international secretariat [including Hamas members], with the collaboration of neighboring Arab states, to cultivate a “refugee” status for Palestinians. UN operated schools have preached anti-Semitic hatred and jihad against the Israeli state. Simultaneously while Israel absorbed 800,000 Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, shorn of all their possessions, the oil-rich Gulf states imported millions of labor from South and Southeast Asia, largely refusing Palestinian Arabs emigration or naturalization. Recent events have forced UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon into condemnation of Hamas violation of repeated attempts at cease fire in contradiction to the UNWRA. Slowly the barbarity of Hamas’ strategy of deliberately exposing Gazans to additional jeopardy from Israeli aerial and ground bombardment in order to exploit world sympathy is seeping through a media unable to report actual conditions in Gaza for fear of their reporters’ lives. For example, CNN interviews with spokesmen for Hamas have without identification taken place in one of the area’s largest hospitals. Some UN officials – for example, from the head of the UN Human Rights organization condemning the U.S. for its participation in developing Israel’s Iron Dome defense and suggesting Washington should aid Hamas in a parallel effort – may finally be bringing some semblance of balance into mass media reporting in the area. It remains to be seen whether Washington, as the disproportionate bankroller of UN activities and massive direct payments to the Palestinians, will use its leverage to reform the aid-giving process. U.S. .Sec. of State John Kerry’s proposal – apparently “demanded” in a bitter conversation by Obama with Netanyahu – to use Qatar and Turkey as mediators in a Gaza ceasefire outraged the Israelis and their American supporters. The effort to cut out Egypt, the traditional mentor for the Gazan Arabs, appeared to be a continuation of the Obama Administration’s flirtation with the Moslem Brotherhood and its cool relations with the Egyptian military. But, almost immediately, including public statements, Washington flipped back to endorsing Cairo as the mediator, including a role for Mohammed Abbas and his West Bank Palestinians. Cairo’s backing by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Arab League has not only strengthened what had been seen as Abbas’ fading role but that of the Palestinian “moderates” despite their public caterwauling in defense of Hamas.
Washington, momentarily, has few options but to wring its hands over the civilian carnage in Gaza and to hope that others will find the basis for ending the crisis successfully, that is, with the demilitarization of Gaza.
No, not the self-designated ursus in the White House, but the Kremlin’s ruler.
Having launched a program attempting to reinstate Moscow’s hegemony over the former Tsarist/Soviet Empire, Vladimir Putin now has been hoisted on his own petard.
When his naked aggression in Georgia in 2008 elicited no significant American-EU response, he followed it with his 2014 annexation of Crimea. When that produced little more than Western denunciation, he mobilized for further aggression, attempting to use the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine.
But he has now become a prisoner of his own rhetoric and aggression.
True, like the European dictators of right and left of the 1930s, he has gained wide popular support at home. But the chauvinistic reaction of the Russian public is a false flag. Shamed and humiliated by the implosion of the Soviet Union [“the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century”, Putin has said], a catastrophic declining population, a start-and-stop economy, and an enormous flight of capital, Putin has used aggressive nationalism to try to reinvigorate a failed regime with all too well remembered demagoguery.
But he is now riding a tiger. Earlier he seemed to have won in Ukraine with an administration succumbing to pressure to back away from the overwhelmingly popular demand to move closer to European Union’s prosperity. [Even relative objective polling of Russian-speakers in Ukraine show their choice is to move into the EU orbit rather than to tie their destinies to a failing Russia.] Then when a popular movement overthrew that Kyiv administration and installed a new pro-European Union executive by a democratically elected parliament, reinforced now with new elections, Putin grabbed Crimea and began to try to manipulate the Russian-speaking minority in eastern Ukraine for his program to reestablish empire.
The criminal stupidity – and how far the Russian finger was actually on the trigger would still have to be determined – of his own intelligence operatives and their following inside eastern Ukraine in bringing down an innocent passenger aircraft has jeopardized his strategy. The scandal has rocked even the most timid in the EU — perhaps even the Germans with their aggressive business interests in Russia. [Citizens of the Netherlands, so often “the swing vote” in EU decision-making, were the overwhelming majority of the victims in the downed aircraft.]
How much it was the pull of a strategy he dare not halt or the push of the reluctance of the U.S. and the EU to engage him may be irrelevant. He has now decided to go ahead full blast. However, his bluff becomes increasingly more dangerous for his hold on the Kremlin as well as for the Russians generally. His difficulties are suddenly greater because even a fragile Ukrainian regime is pressing relatively successfully on his Ukrainian puppets. So, by all documented Western accounts, his response is to pour new weaponry across the border into Ukraine, even supporting his devastated puppets with artillery fired from across the border in Russia.
It is rapidly becoming an undisguised war of Moscow against Kyiv.
That will force even the Obama Administration – under Congressional pressure – to extend more than token aid to the Ukrainians. It may even move the Europeans to bite the bullet and challenge Putin to cut off his gas sales which he needs as desperately if not more so than the EU customers.
With the Russian economy dropping into negative growth and a World Bank estimate that more than $100 billion in capital flight is projected for this year – it has already exceeded by a third last year’s total – the domestic economic scene is rapidly deteriorating. No one expects Putin’s coterie of fellow KGB siloviki to desert him. But he can only confiscate and throw into prison so many corrupt oligarchs with their bank accounts in The City of London. They have been critical support for his regime. And economic distress will eventually erode the fashionable current ultra-nationalism of the Moscow bureaucratic elite which runs the country.
So Putin ploughs ahead into trying not to dismember the post-Soviet Ukrainian state but to dominate it, if perhaps with the cooperation of a Washington Administration still trying to accommodate him. That’s based on the incredible parity with which Sec. of State John Kerry publicly continues to conceptualize relations with friend and foe [whether Ukraine and Russia or Israel and Hamas].
But with an increasingly lame duck Pres. Barack Obama, probably facing a two-house Republican Congress after November, that, too, is eroding.
It is significant that Hillary Clinton, in full candidate mode, after endorsing the “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations as Obama’s secretary of state, now is publicizing her supposed differences with Obama when she was in office. She now takes a hawkish line, for example asking for U.S. arming of the Ukrainians. That, of course, is a part of her absolutely essential political gambit to distance herself from the increasingly unpopular Obama if she is, indeed, to make a successful run for the presidency. Her Sunday interview with Fareed Zakaria, who laid down a patter about the culpability of the Europeans – rather than the Obama presidency and Clinton’s failure of leadership while at the State Department, as the source of the deteriorating world scene is the foreign policy campaign line she will try to pursue. It could be no other given a poll that says 56% of the American people think Obama [and Clinton will get tagged in a campaign as his former Secretary of State] is not to be trusted on foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the Obama-Kerry team continues to pursue its “lead from behind” catastrophic policies, pretending that there is no dire priority in the threat to U.S. national interest in the Russian aggression in the Ukraine [or for that matter, with international growing Islamic terrorism] That misapprehension of the current state of world affairs was illustrated with the incredible reporting of the Obama Administration’s current internal deliberations by The New York Times, the alter ego of the Administration. TNYT reports: “’The debate is over how much to help Ukraine without provoking Russia’”, said a senior official participating in the American discussions.”
Yes, indeed, without provoking Putin.
Events are drawing Israel into a major war with neighboring Arab terrorist organizations to result in another total reordering of Mideast relationships.
Comparison of the current scene with the eve of the Six Day War in 1967 is almost unavoidable. Then, too, a reluctant Israel waged a preemptive action because of what it saw as an existential threat from an alliance of Arab neighbors.
As great as the possibility for another complete regional redispositioning is, the outcome of events is even more unpredictable than it was in 1965. Today’s situation is vastly different:
First, Egypt, the largest and traditionally the leading Arab state, will not be the tripwire which brought on Israel’s preemptive strike then. This time Cairo could well be a benevolent neutral if not an ally in any new encounter between Israel and its principle enemy, the radical Arab Islamicists. Cairo’s military junta is waging a ruthless campaign against the jihadists, voted into power but which it dislodged with considerable popular support.
Secondly, the prospect of a Soviet Union intervention is missing – and a clash of the then two superpowers – which hung over the earlier events. Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin’s nuclear arsenal notwithstanding, his ability to influence events in the region with conventional military forces and aid is marginal. In part, that is because his imbroglio in Ukraine having produced early victories is now turning into a Russian disaster.
Thirdly, the ambivalent position of the Obama Administration despite all its public protestations of loyalty to a U.S. ally, is a sharp contrast to Pres. Lyndon Johnson’s profound pro-Israel sympathies at a time when the U.S. Left had not made a bogus Palestinian crusade a central issue.
And, fourthly, there is a new aggressive and potentially nuclear-armed Iran, dedicated to the destruction of Israel, mobilizing long suppressed Shia minorities throughout the region in a Muslim sectarian conflict. Tehran’s mullahs have been able to bridge the historic Arab-Persian divide to bolster Arab Shia and even non-Shia allies.
Instead of the pan-Arab ideology so successfully evangelized by the charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.— however dented by the earlier Egyptian defeat in 1956 – the cement of any anti-Israel alliance today is radical Islam. Rather than the artificial national entities drawn by the World War I victors, Jerusalem today faces on all sides fanatical regional guerrilla organizations evolved into threatening major organized terrorist entities.
In the south, Hamas, a child of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood so favored by the Obama Administration as a “moderate” political force, has crossed over the sectarian line in the past to accept Iranian aid. Despite what is a tacit combined Israeli and Egyptian embargo, it has accumulated a growing and increasingly sophisticated arsenal. In the north, the Hezbollah with its roots in southern Lebanon, is now bloodied with its significant participation with Iran in salvaging the al Assad regime in Syria. Both these organization now could inflict far more pain on Israel’s civilian population than the artillery, mortar and rocket attacks of ’67.
On the east, the always fragile Jordan, beset with enormous destabilizing refugee flows from both Syria and Iraq and the growing seduction of its own majority Palestinians by the radical Islamicists, now faces the ultra-fanatical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on its once secure border with Iraq. ISIL’s claim to restoration of a trans-national caliphate, a Muslim empire headed by a religious figure invoking 7th century codes of justice, may not be sustainable. But its announcement in the half of Iraq it tentatively controls with like-minded allies is a powerful rallying cry for traditional Muslim jihad, holy war against all “non-believers”. That appeal to ruthless and bloody fanaticism, always just below the surface in traditional Islam with its validation in Koranic text, is cutting through yesterday’s regional allegiances.
Washington has not caught up. Obama’s tentative choice to meet the new threat in the area incrementally – dribbling advisers to a crippled Baghdad government – is not likely to stem the tide of success against the jihadists’ bandwagon. There is already evidence that the new ultra-radical Muslims have adherents in both the Israeli-Occupied West Bank and under relatively more moderate Hamas’ nose in Gaza. Washington indecision confirms the belief throughout the umma [the Muslim world]that the U.S. is no longer the major factor in the region’s power struggle. They see an American retreat providing the opportunity for dedicated minorities to determine events.
Thus, Israel faces the same dilemma as in 1967, that is, whether to wait for the always powerful fissiparous tendencies of Arab and Muslim societies to tear themselves apart or to move before a new and aggressive enemy tyranny consolidates. In that earlier conflict, by happenstance as much as design, Israel established itself as the region’s military “superpower”. That, in turn, produced however recalcitrant and imperfect, peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Their defection from the anti-Israel front formalized the division of the Arabs despite their profession of unity which had been one of the sources of the Israeli victory.
Today the Arabs are no less divided. And, in fact, the Syrian civil war has not only set Muslim fanatics against a pretended secular if dictatorial regime, but because of Damascus’ Alawite [an offshoot of Shia] leadership and the Iranian Shia mullahs’ support, it has set off a new regional test between the majority Sunni regimes and long oppressed Shia Arab minorities.
Their tactics, claiming as many Muslims as non-Islamic lives – from suicide bombings to kidnappings – strike deep at the vulnerability of Israel’s Western-style civil society And whether targets are a relatively new light rail system in Jerusalem or vacationers on a foreign beach, Israel’s growing prosperity and sophistication as a leading world industrial society make it all that more susceptible.
Ironically, Israeli leadership today – while as contentious and disputatious as ever – is probably freed from two of the principal concerns on the eve of the Six Day War in deciding strategy. Regard for the UN – even then under the hapless leadership of Sec. Gen. U Thant – is less a consideration. UN peacekeeping in the region, as elsewhere, has come and gone with little if any effect. One suspects, too, that despite frequent public obeisance to the Obama Administration for the U.S.’ invaluable source of military hardware, no one in Jerusalem is blind to its pro-Muslim sympathies and its incompetence.
Obama’s insistence on prioritizing Jewish settlements in the traditional sites of the ancient Hebrew kingdoms, the basis of Israel’s legitimacy, was a guarantee of failure of Israel-Arab negotiations. [No one seems to ask if there is to be a two-state solution with a 1.8 million Israeli Arab minority, are Jews to be excluded from the proposed Palestinian state?] In continuing to insist on direct negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abas who has had to concede the growing power of the Islamicists by a coalition government with Hamas, Obama and Sec. of State John Kerry appear totally at sea in the Arab desert.
Yet Jerusalem has other deepening concerns. The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers and a subsequent kidnapping and brutal murder of an Arab teenager – perhaps by Israeli vigilantes in retribution – are dramatizing a deterioration of the domestic scene. The civil strife in predominantly Arab northern Israel is further evidence. The fact that Hamas cannot or will not control escalating missile strikes against southern Israel and the new ISSL threat to Jordan are forcing the Israelis into consideration of more dramatic action to preserve their stature. While future action might become a full-fledged invasion, or even reoccupation. of Gaza, it is likely as in 1965, to coincide with developments on the other “fronts”.
Assuming the Israeli military superiority, including the tacit endorsement of Cairo and the Gulf states to action against the jihadists, a new perspective would unroll in the Mideast. But given the incredible complex of cross currents [as in 1967] the outcome is totally unpredictable.
by Sol Sanders
The current extremely successful campaign of aggression by Russia’s dictator-candidate Vladimir Putin illustrates two of the fundamentals of geolitical history:
A demagogue’s capability of achieving remarkable results through bluff.
How history often turns on relatively small margins only later to be disremembered.
Putin, with a home front in near crisis, has nevertheless won an important strategic victory by his covert invasion of the Crimea and wresting it, at least temporarily, from Ukraine. The disarray in Kiev after an unbelievably corrupt regime was dismembered by a popular street revolt has facilitated his pretense of superior power. That a rapidly declining Russian population, beset with all sorts of economic and social ills has embraced his new nationalist fervor, is no surprise. The old bandwagon effect of propaganda is notorious; pace Germany in the Nazi takeover after 1933 when the celebrated “good Germans” were increasingly few and far between – as long as Hitler was winning..
Putin’s victorious march from one propaganda feat to another is occasioned more by the utter collapse of a naïve U.S. policy in regard to Russia. Not least has been Washington’s inability to present a common front with the European Union. It is one of the many contradictions of the current scene that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, presumably the most exposed of the EU’s members to blackmail because of its heavy [one-third] dependence on Russian energy imports, has taken the firmest line, at least publicly. Pres. Obama’s statements, on the other hand, ring hollow as more of past “red lines” which turned out meaningless.
Putin’s success is all the more “illogical” given the fact that he appears to have no ideology – other than a vague wish to return Russia to Soviet and/or Tsarist glory. Yet he dare not maximize that nostalgia given the still unresolved issue of Stalin and his domestic terror within the living memory of at least a few Russians. Nor, one suspects, is he moving systematically from one strategic move to another, but rather improvising tactically as he goes along.
What is clear is that his aim is to reassert Moscow authority over the former “lost” areas of Soviet dominance. Ukraine with its 45 million people, great agricultural resources and ancillary industry to the old Soviet decentralized industrial networks [not the least munitions] is a special prize and first in his agenda That would suggest that rather than proceed with dismembering it – that is, repeating the process of detaching Crimea and linking it to Russia which he might be able to do in Eastern and Southern Ukraine — he may well want a weak and subservient Ukrainian central regime.
Thus Secretary of State John Kerr’s repeated efforts to smooth the Russian feathers with his almost constant exchanges with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavror are worrisome. That’s especially true since announcements of successful agreement between the two are followed almost immediately by aggressive statements from the Kremlin. If an attack on a sovereign nation is the international issue that precipitated the present crisis and must be dealt with, as it is, then surely Putins dictating the formation of a restructured Kiev regime – perhaps with a few imputes from Washington – is not the way to go.
Therefore, there may be wishful thinking to British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s guessing that Putin has lost control of his assets in Ukraine. That is a little hard to believe. Western observers on the ground are generally agreed that those little men in “green uniforms” wearing masks and wielding sophisticated arms were infiltrated KGB and Russian Special Forces. They led the charge of local Russian ethnic dissidents against the fragile Kiev government. Yes, Putin did publicly call for halting this past weekend’s referendum in Eastern Ukraine. [No one dares use that old Hitler appellation “plebiscite” with its evil 1930 connotations] It calls for separation and possible affiliation to the Russian Federation. But that certainly does not mean that Putin’s agents aren’t, in fact, pushing his backhand program. Is Hague really that naïve?
This kind of subterfuge has been the chief characteristic of Putin’s program since he began the effort through the ousted bought-and-paid-for former Ukrainian Pres. Viktor Fedorovych Yanukovych. That miscreant was so unsavory that Moscow has treated him with rubber gloves after he ran to Russia for his life. The incredible revelations of hedonistic lifestyle have, even by the standards of the many present worldwide kleptocracies, staggering. It suggests just how far the improvised Kiev administration at the same time must create a new regime resisting very real disruptive tendencies within a new state but at the same resist Putin.
In the last few days, Putin has played an old Stalinist card: the appeal to loyalty to the Motherland, a massive display of military pomp and ceremony on Red Square not seen since Soviet days. The call to loyalties of World War II when Russians paid a terrible price for Stalin’s dallying with Hitler for a temporary truce in the Fascist-Communist struggle and the purging of his veteran generals to exert maximum control. It also, subliminally, recalls the Russian complaint that they rather than the West with their enormous casualties [8.7 million soldiers, 6 to 12 million civilians].downed Hitler. That, again, feeds into the kind of anti-Americanism which is the flip side of a genuine admiration for Americans that has always characterized the Russians.
Yet Putin’s military in 2014 – despite its threatening hoard of nuclear weapons and some lingering success in continued Soviet missile propulsion – is nothing like the Soviet inventory. Of the Soviet fleet of 110 deep water ships, for example, Putin as only 12. [The submarine fleet is less than a third.] Putin’s military modernization – ironically in part based on acquiring actual weapons in addition to technology from the West [drones from Israel, SUVs from Italy, training equipment from Germany, etc.] – has introduced new flexibility into the old Soviet gigantism.. Progress made since the Russian army stumbled into Georgia in 2008 includes remolding the Spetsnaz [special forces] so abysmally ineffective in the two [recent] Chechnya wars. But his army still hangs suspended somewhere between a conniving and evading draft and volunteers. Nor has the nightmare of brutality of relationships between NCOs and soldiers been assuaged.
But while Russian forces are not match for NATO, Russian strategy cannot be dismissed by Washington. For example, by setting up an expanded anti-aircraft defense for Belarus – increasingly under Russian influence and control, and perhaps the No. 2 target after Ukraine — Moscow has partially checked any Western air effort to defend the Baltic States in the event of a surprise attack by Russia. NATO’s commander U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove acknowledges that Russian forces which remain deployed along Ukraine’s border [despite Russian denials] could overwhelm Ukraine in as little as five days.
Still, Putin is also paying an enormous price for the increased instability his international ploy has introduced into the Russian economy. Never mind that the Obama Administration’s sanctions so far – “move another inch and I will let you have it!” – are virtually meaningless. The capital outflow of Putin’s own oligarchic playmates, always enormous, is suddenly a hemorahge hat can’t be staunched. The estimated $70 billion in the first quarter of 2014 is more than all last year’s losses. Despite nominally attracting Western oil companies to still unexplored Arctic resaves, Putin’s fossil fuel exports remain high cost. And they are under threat from the U.S. shale natural gas and oil exports dynamiting world fossil fuel prices. The effort by Russian government companies to grab European gas distribution networks has only been partially successful, with new pipelines from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Israel, and with new LNG/LPG facilities independent of Russia and Ukraine already falling into place.
Putin’s potential for troublemaking, of course, is virtually unlimited. Every one of the former Soviet-Occupied countries – the so-called “near abroad” – have significant Russian ethnic populations. He can, as he did in Crimea and now in Eastern Ukraine, manufacture incidents of discrimination and persecution of Russian-speakers. [There is considerable evidence of naiveté of some Western observers about the complicated loyalties of these minorities. Their real sentiments were for special rights under a Kiev government but a longing to go west with it to the EU rather than east to a failing Moscow economy.] It is a pattern the Nazis used in the run-up to World War II, and a Polish official who suggests Putin’s speeches might have borrowed from Hitler’s on may not be that much of an exaggeration.
When, how and where Obama and the EU must call Putin’s bluff is now the question hanging in the air. The ball is in their court. There is an ever present danger that events or hubris will drag Putin along and create the kind of armed conflict neither side wants but will not be able to avoid.
There is presently about as much confusion as when the U.S. entered The Cold War against the Soviet Union in the late 1940s. But there are fundamental defining differences to what is likely to be an equally long and complex new struggle between the U.S., its allies and Moscow.
The two engagements do share one commonality: American leadership now as then has been slow to face up to the task before it. It’s far too easy now to forget just how many times Josef Stalin signaled his forthcoming unrelenting war on The West before democratic statesmen understood what they faced and mobilized to meet it. [And here, mea culpa. I admit shamefacedly as a young, idealistic, naïve student I wrote a U of Mo Jay School classroom harangue [alas! printed in the Columbia Missourian] denouncing Winston Churchill’s March 1946 “Sinews of Peace” speech, at nearby Westminster College. Back from our victorious however bloody war in Europe and Asia, I was sure like most that a new era of relations among nations had begun, that the old balance of power collisions were now a thing of the past. It was then, of course, the British statesmen who whatever his numerous strategic mistakes this time with great clarity defined the issues and coined the term “iron curtain”.]
Churchill knew that the word had gone out to Communist apparatchiks worldwide that the Soviets were grasping for world domination. Even now almost every month brings more evidence of the enormous influence of their coterie in the highest echelons of Western government and among intellectuals helping to disguise and confuse the issues. Yet it was at a time when Moscow was constantly revealing its hand. Whether it was the last minute snatching of Manchuria and northern Korea and Japan’s northern islands, the usurpation of the Polish government-in-exile, Moscow’s attempt to set up a new Azeri satellite in northwest Iran, an attempted Communist coup against still “unrecognized” Indonesian nationalists, Communist exploitation of an insurrection in India’s Hyderabad [Deccan] state, the revelations of penetration of the Australian Labor Party, the attempto install Communism in Greece — Stalin was pushing the Comintern’s envelope everywhere.
Only with the dramatic resolve – and what was ultimately to be the Soviet downfall, superior American technology – following the Berlin Airlift in 1948 was there a full awakening. Washington backed off Soviet efforts to force the U.S. and its Western partners out of bifurcated Berlin. Suddenly it became crystal clear to all and sundry that the struggle was joined and would have to be resolved only by the ultimate victory of one party or the other.
Even then, Henry Kissinger’s 1969-1980 “détente” [from the French “a relaxation”] again obscured the issues for a decade. It was not until the advent of Ronald Reagan and his clear-eyed identification of “the evil empire” with his matching tactics that Communism was met again head-on and defeated – as much from its own “internal contradictions”, as the Communists would have said, as outside pressure.
Lack of that Communist ideology or for that matter any ideology characterizes the current contest. Putin’s turn to an age-old amorphous appeal to romantic Slavic “exceptionalism” opposed to Western European humanism is a weak reed. Despite Putin’s labeling the implosion of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, Communism today has no appeal beyond Pyongyang’s traditional Oriental Despotism [into which Lenin warned Soviet rule might degenerate], an increasingly nominal adherence by an ideologically rudderless China, and the kleptocracy of Vietnam.
Putin is not only bereft of ideology, the Russian leader bluffs his way from move to move. But that is not to say he is not for the moment successful. Nor is to be forgotten how often Hitler in the 1930s was bluffing, but how often the feint was successful. From his 1936 “unilateral” remilitarization of the Rhineland in defiance of the Versailles and Locarno Treaties, when he told his anxious commanders they would withdraw if France opposed them militarily, Hitler bluffed. Nor was it clear to most at the time that his domination of Czechoslovakia by gnawing at it through Sudetenland. – “protecting’ German-speaking ethnics much as Putin claims he has done in Crimea and threatens in Ukraine proper – meant he was securing the best Skoda arms for another division to strike at Poland in September 1939, initiating World War II.
Putin, of course, is not Hitler. His jerrybuilt post-Communist economy is not the war machine 19th century delivered to the Kaiser in World War I, the model which so infatuated Lenin it was his template for designing the catastrophic Soviet economic experiment. And if for no other reason, although Putin has a gigantic nuclear arsenal, Russian conventional military forces do not remotely resemble Hitler’s wehrmacht. But Hillary Clinton was correct when her speechwriters said Putin’s grab of Crimea resembled the Nazi dictator’s repeated claims on his neighbors’ territory through provocations. This time Putin, too, masked pure and simple aggression as ethnic conflict replete with hired thugs and Russian soldiers short of their insignia. As Polish columnist Konstanty Gebert. commented, apparently only half-seriously, “… the analogies are staggering to the point that I’m asking myself whether Mr. Putin’s speechwriter didn’t intentionally model elements of the speech [formally announcing Crimea’s annexation] on the more famous predecessor.”.
Furthermore, The Economist’s Andrew Lucas is absolutely right in condemning on moral terms the Western apologists for Putin, proferring whether we would have treated a former Gestapo figure with such “understanding” had postwar Germany retreated from democracy. An interviewer on government-subsidized National Public Radio [where else?] suggests a fundamental difference Communism and the Nazis: the Kremlin did not pursue a policy of annihilating one people, the Jews. [The Crimean Tatars, 200,000 killed with forced evacuation during World War II, and more murdered when they tried to return after the Soviet implosion, might take exception to even that supposed distinction.] But that is an all too familiar rationalization of the Western left for Moscow’s actions, a Russia where there has been only the slightest fundamental grappling with the horrors of Stalinism and the tens of millions killed by the Leninist regime. It is a very fine distinction, indeed.
Again, unlike the Soviet Union which attempted autarky except in crises when it needed a capitalist transfusion [see Sanders’ Living Off the West: Gorbachev’s Secret Agenda and Why It Will Fail, Madison Books, 1990], Boris Yeltsin and then Putin’s Russia sought integration into world markets. That is Putin’s strength and his weakness. As by far the world’s greatest exporter of natural gas and the second largest oil producer [only recently has U.S. production risen to make it No. 1], the $160 billion Moscow earned from fossil fuel exports in 2012 is the critical element in its weak economy. The shale revolution initiated by American technology, again, offers abatement in the long run of European reliance on Russian gas. If only Pres. Barack Obama would drop his war on fossil fuels and speed up U.S. pipelines, LNG installations for fleets and exports! Note the call of several Central European countries publicly since the Ukraine crisis began for just such action. Instead, as so often happens with democracies, instead of dramatic, decisive action, Obama has chosen to scale up his economic weapons, thereby giving Putin that more time to accommodate.
True, there will be a price to pay for economic warfare to rock Putin’s boat, especially by our European allies. But there is no reason – given all that he has said publicly and his blatant action in Crimea – to believe that the old secret police thug is aiming at less than an attempted restitution of a Russian empire. Already there have been hints at exploiting other Russian ethnic minorities which exist in all the former Soviet “republics” that freed themselves from Moscow’s rule in the 90s, as he has done on the Black Sea.
Those who obscure the issue by either justifying Putin’s actions with such bogus arguments as Washington’s purported failure to accord Moscow a sufficient world role after the Soviet implosion, or wishful thinking that Putin may not continue to bluff his way to new victories to bolster his rickety regime, are doing world stability and peace a great disservice. Of course, there are complexities and cross-currents. But the fact is the world again is faced with an aggressor dedicated to territorial aggrandizement. And only standing up to the bullying effectively is the answer to maintain longterm peace as NATO, the most successful alliance in history has proved.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with more contact and knowledge of Putin than other Western leaders, has said he lives in “fantasy”. That U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and British Foreign Minister William Hague continually assure Putin — and us – that we are in a new era, absent 19th and 20th century national conflicts, suggests others too may have stumbled into a tangentially related “fantasy”.
A bane of modern military studies [let’s eschew “science”] is the concept of counter-insurgency – the idea that indigenous revolts around the world can be analyzed with “the scientific method” and a set of general principles if implemented could cure the problem. Common sense tells us that the essence of any dissidence/armed insurrection is its particularity, its basis in specific local conditions. They differ not only in geography but in the characteristics of individual societies. So, yes, the army should not steal the peasants’ chickens is a good maxim – but such bromides do not go far to tell you how to prevent civil war.
At the moment, we have one bitter internecine war in Syria, and three incipient revolts between two or more elements in Ukraine, Venezuela and Thailand. Other conflicts, even messier to define, are growing in the Central African Republic and Nigeria.
The question, of course, is whether there anything that connects all these conflicts? And, if so, what if anything can be done to lessen tension and conflict?
The ambivalence between Ukraine and Russia is as old as the two peoples. In fact, it was from centers in what is now Ukraine that Christianity spread to the Great Russians and where they even got their name. More recently, Ukrainians have suffered disproportionately in the Soviet Union – a bitter irony, often at the hands of ethnic Ukrainian members of the Communist hierarchy. Stalin’s man-made famine of the 1930s followed on to the horrors of those of World War I when the engineer Herbert Hoover first emerged on the world scene. But a flame of Ukrainian identity survived, expressing itself at the height of Soviet repression in such small protests as citizens of Ukraine’s western metropolis, the old Hapsburg city of Lviv [Lvov, Lemberg] unofficially using “our time” [Central European] rather than Moscow’s time zone to express their identification with the West..
So it is no wonder that [Ras] Putin, the new Russian dictator seeking to restore Soviet glory has intrigued in a state once called in the two World Wars “a figment of the imagination of the German general staff”. Whatever the outcome of fast-moving events, Putin has the most to gain or lose – aside from the Ukrainians themselves. Ras – who has said publicly that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the bloody 20th century — is gambling. By his direct intervention, he either hopes to bring Ukraine again under Moscow hegemony, or failing that, to destroy its unity as a cautionary tale for other former Soviet “republics” holding on to their fragile independence.
But for the moment, the anti-Soviet forces have gained the upper hand in Kiev and he faces a choice of backing the ultra-corrupt Russophile Viktor Yanukovych as he attempts to cling to power, apparently setting up shop in Russian-speaking and industrial eastern Ukraine. Or Ras could wait to see if Pres. Barack Obama and the European Union will do the necessary to back their friends in Kiev. Or, unlikely, Putin retreats, taking his licks and admitting a disastrous defeat. That result could escalate Moscow’s growing economic difficulties with its almost total dependence on fossil fuel exports, undercut by the growing impact of America’s shale revolution on world prices.
As ghastly as is Basher al Assad and his Iranian backers’ war on Syrian civilians – matching the ugly trial run Nazi and Fascist aircraft waged on Spanish Republicans in that prelude to World War II – geopolitically its importance lies elsewhere. Every day that al Assad’s regime survives, U.S. interests and those of its allies suffer: there is an intensification of the influence and control of radical jihadists in the opposition to Assad, and the growing influence of the Tehran mullahs not only in Damascus but in neighboring Lebanon and even among formerly rabidly Sunni Hamas jihadists in Gaza.
Continued Syrian fighting risks the stability of both Israel and Jordan, the major two outright allies along with Saudi Arabia. The growing perception of Iranian strength is posing an increasing dilemma for the Gulf Arab sheikdoms and even the military in Egypt: whether they knuckle under to Iranian Mideast hegemony or go nuclear themselves. For long ago it became apparent that despite public pronouncements, the Obama Administration is prepared to settle for a supposedly nuanced arrangement whereby Tehran has the capability of weapons of mass destruction but does not “weaponize”. That for a country which for 17 years was able to disguise its uranium enrichment from UN regulators of the non-proliferation treaty it had signed.
With its long history of repressive regimes since independence from Spain almost 200 years ago, Caracas again is saddled with new oppression. But this time its incompetence matches any effort to tyrannize a divided opposition. With one of the world’s largest petroleum reserves, Pres. Nicolás Maduro has taken the country further toward bankruptcy, in no small part because of the largesse he has continued from his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Chavez’ populist policies built a constituency among the nation’s poor until his death in 2013 and among leftist regimes around the continent.
Now Maduro, with his constant malapropisms, almost a caricature of Chavez, relies increasingly on Raul Castro’s Cuba and its secret police tactics, including Cuban “advisors”, against rising opposition. The cost in oil for the Castro dictatorship some observers reckon as much as $13 billion a year. Other discounts go to the leftist, and above all anti-American regimes, notably the Sandinista retreads in Nicaragua.
The old contest between Bangkok’s Sino-Thai elite and the more ethnic Thai rurals, especially those in the poorer northeast, has come unhinged in the rapid economic and international integration of the once isolated nation that never became a European colony.. Ironically, the rural areas – which once got some taste of social and economic upward mobility through the frequent encroachment of the military on the political process – have now been seduced with long-awaited social services. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a populist handing out new entitlements while he used his connections for building an enormous personal fortune, is a fugitive from corruption charges. Nevertheless, from Dubai or wherever he has been running the country through his political machine with his sister as prime minister to the consternation of the old elite. [It is another irony that Shinawatra is, himself, only first generation Sino-Thai which he has never tried to hide.]
The elite, increasingly supported by students and Bangkok’s middle class, are now turning to the possibility of some sort of indirect rule rather than Shinawatra’s popular mandate. The crisis is deepening, beginning to affect Thailand’s tourism — $26.7 billion in 1013, up 20% over the year before. Street rioting has already canceled out an estimated 900,000 visitors in the next six months and their $1.6 billion. Violence would eventually cut into the steady low of foreign investment – Thailand’s auto industry dominates Southeast Asia, ninth largest in the world.
Solutions for half a century to periodic blowups have come from the intervention of the military, now more reluctant than ever before to jeopardize its $5.3 billion budget by bloodying its hands. Thailand’s sainted 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyade, despite his close associations with the elite, has spent much of the last year in hospital. The final arbiter in past political crises, he is coming to the end of a 68-year reign with the succession somewhat clouded by a scandal-prone crown prince.
Needless to say, the U.S. did not create any of these crises. But whatever the failings of the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s endless peregrinations and John Kerry’s pledges of endurance, there is a growing worldwide perception that American power is retreating in the face of a poorly functioning domestic economy, a curtailment of military expenditures, and an Obama policy that attempts to “lead from behind”. “Syria” has become the arch symbol of Obama’s indecisiveness. That carries over to a growing belief in a general withdrawal from the U.S.’ preeminent post-World War II leadership of free societies. With Obama’s threats and “red lines” increasingly ignored, an ominous vacuum in virtually all regions of the world invites chaos if not worse.