Sunday, September 15, 2013

Obama's foreign policy: Neither by masterful design nor by accident

The whiplash of events last week that led to the agreement with Russia and got us off the hook of a risky military strike against Syria  has me  wondering whether President Obama was a  chess master  doing what  he had planned all along or simply a beneficiary of  dumb luck.  This is the stuff that books piled  upon university courses are made of.
One take away could be that it was neither check mating nor dumb luck.  It was the flexible use of  tactics  in changing circumstances to support a pragmatic strategy   to reach a stated  foreign policy goal.
Many  of the goals had long been enunciated by Candidate Obama:  it was no more boots on the ground,  a military withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan, and ending military meddling in other middle eastern countries’ business.  If  use of   military muscle would actually help meet those goals, it should be limited  and with  an international effort with backing of our allies and neighbors of the region affected.   We should work with those who have common national   interests at stake in that particular situation, if not in all issues. It was this stated policy that won Obama the Democratic Party nomination over Hillary Clinton, who had voted for military intervention in Iraq.
 It was that same policy for which the GOP had criticized Obama as “leading from behind” or “weakening American power and its exceptionalism” . That is   until many Republicans  about faced, demanding  we should not take  leadership in Syria, wait for the UN, and  not use our military might.
So far, Pres. Obama is being consistent with Candidate Obama. He is making good on his withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq.  An international coalition and limited, but effective action in oil producing  Libya worked to bring regime change  with no long term use  of our boots.
Syria is an even better  example of Obama’s goals.  It was to be a short term action, though it kept Congress and  Assad  guessing if it was just a shot across the bow, a pin prick, or actually  taking out airfields and means of delivery of chemical weapons. Our missiles off shore spoke to a meaningful strike.  The latter appears to have gotten both Russia’s and Assad’s attention because that would have shifted the balance of the civil war to the rebels’ advantage. 
Mutual  self interest of Russia and the US was identified. We  share a common enemy…al Qaeda like fighters. Neither of us wanted to see them win the civil war, though the US approach was the tricky job of arming the moderate rebels with small arms, while neighboring Sunni nations provided the heavy anti tank  supplies.  Russia, with its Caucus problems, was beginning to fear that US military action might jeopardize Assad and  that the chemical weapons would end up in the wrong hands.     A peaceful solution was  discussed by Presidents Putin and Obama at the G20 in the  week of September 5.
 Sending the issue to Congress before the G20  provided a  delay  to give this a chance to work out, though Obama appeared to miscalculate the intensity of Congress’ opposition and or  world opposition to forming a coalition of the willing. If he had taken any lesson from the UK’s parliamentary vote against intervention, it was not to take the issue to Congress and  to strike immediately instead. That is reason to believe referral to Congress  was a delaying tactic, giving   time to meet face to face with Pres. Putin and to gain his support for a UN resolution.  
While the UN deal does not include military consequences if Assad fails to comply, the US has made it clear it reserves the right of unilateral attack and to continue to arm moderate rebels. Our guns are still cocked and pointed.

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