We Don’t Have a Strategy Yet …


Talk about a no-news news conference! We – and by “we” I mean the rest of the world – have known that since 2009. From Mr Obama’s Apology Tour to his “foreign contingency operations”, “man-made disasters” and Fort Hood’s “workplace violence,” he has systematically misunderstood the nature of our enemy and the nature of the threat they pose. He still does. Even his hapless Secretary of Defense is a quicker study than he. His Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sees the urgency of the existential threat posed by ISIS.

According to Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counter Terrorism Center, “ISIS has a problem now that it has seized a large swathe of territory in both Iraq and Syria. It can’t afford to see its cash flow diminish. It’s coming in and [going] out quickly … Fighters have to be paid something … The cost of governance, paying administrators in the towns and cities they have captured and incorporated into their khalifat, running a [country] is not cheap[1].” A “comprehensive” treatment of an infected toe is of no use if gangrene has passed the knee. “We have a comprehensive strategy in Iraq,” his press secretary assures us. If that’s true, why have we not struck the seven oil fields or two refineries or their pipelines in northern Iraq controlled by ISIS, from which they derive around $2 million a day from the illicit oil sales? Why have we not severed the roads by which they commit commerce? Why have we not hit concentrations of confiscated tanks and artillery pieces? All of this can be done in Iraq, without venturing into Syria and therefore upsetting Iran (with which Mr Obama still holds hope of negotiating out of what they see as a strategic necessity).

Because there is no “comprehensive” strategy. It’s the run-of-the-mill whack-a-mole policy that permeates the Obama administration. His “no victors, no vanquished” vision of dealing with belligerents is, if anything, more naïve than the “reset” of US-Russian relations. And will have, if anything, more disastrous results.

For a limited time, we can disrupt their progress by making it more expensive to operate their “khalifat”, while at the same time cutting into their income, and we can do it at a time before they can entrench more durable sources of income. If our president can only pull the trigger without studying the situation to death – as he did with the rescue operation for James Foley (which was ready to go in the first week of July, but was delayed by the White House until it was too late).

You know what it takes for the president to have a strategy? Call the SecDef into his office and tell him, “I need a strategy to defeat ISIS on my deck in ten days.” That’s it. That’s all it takes. We need to find out if Mr Obama wants to defeat ISIS or just contain it. Or neither.

[1] As quoted in Robert Windrem, Deep Pockets, Dark Goals: How Will ISIS Keep Funding Terror?, NBC News, August 28 2014.

the Last 500 Meters of Diplomacy


When President Barack Obama removed the last US forces from Iraq in December 2011, he announced that – as he had planned – the US was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government[1].”

Here’s another one: “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”

In the latter case, he knew he was lying, in the former, I hope he was. If he really believes we were leaving a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq” in our wake, he is delusional. I think both cases are congruent in their adherence to ideology over reality. Barack Obama is an ardent ideologue.

The chief reason his diplomacy never works is that it always comes up short. About 500 meters short. No diplomacy works in absentia of a believable enforcement regimen. And as long as “a military response is off the table” is his knee-jerk reaction to any given crisis, no one will take Mr Obama, and therefore us, seriously. Even if it’s true, the last thing you want to do is to tell your adversary that no matter what he does, we will do nothing. At that point, our adversary wins. This is an analog of advertising a date-certain of a coming withdrawal – all the enemy has to do is mark their calendar and wait for us to leave (see: Iraq, and soon, Afghanistan).

In a chicken-and-egg scenario, Mr Obama has cut the military to dangerous levels (not my words, rather those of the Quadrennial Defense Review board) – the smallest Navy since before World War I, the smallest fighter contingent in Air Force history, an Army below pre-World War II strength levels – and then notes that nearly any intervention would be a hazardous stretch of the military. Gradually removing the United States from relevance in shaping world events, Mr Obama has thrown all of our alliances into question. By creating an abyss between Washington and Tel Aviv, Mr Obama has jeopardized Israeli survivability in an increasingly dangerous region.

Regardless of one’s belief in Liberal Internationalism – the foreign policy school that holds the superiority of enmeshing nations in a web of alliances, treaties and agreements that impel normative behavior of signatories – it must be recognized that the ebb and flow of history is driven by Realist forces – the balance of power among and between nations and regions. The bottom line of social organization is force. That’s why governments insist on monopolizing its legitimate use domestically. Ideas, theories, principles, constitutions and laws are meaningless unless they can be enforced. Likewise, alliances, treaties, agreements and organizations are meaningless unless the consequences of aberrant behavior can be enforced. This is because in every social organization, from book clubs to nations and alliances, there are members unwilling to abide by rules to which they have previously agreed, or outside interlopers who disregard the legitimacy of those rules. If rules cannot be enforced, they are nonexistent.

Mr Obama is an analog mind in a digital world. His mind was honed in academia, which tends to produce two kinds of thinkers – agile and creative (e.g., Freeman Dyson or Robert Oppenheimer) or group-think and isolated (e.g., Harry Reid or John Boehner). The former think outside the box in problem-solving; the latter are the box. Unfortunately, Barack Obama fits most closely into the latter.

As a de facto world leader, Mr Obama applies what he knows best: academic ponder and neighborhood organizing divisiveness. The creative mind used college to learn how to think while the isolated mind used it to learn what to think, and in a world that doesn’t fit a preconceived notion, the creative thinker is filled with wonder and questions while the isolated thinker is befuddled. And that best describes America’s reaction to the rest of the world over the last six years – befuddled.

A steady reduction of security in the face of a deteriorating security environment in Benghazi, a rapid reduction of military power while the world is on fire, a reset of relations with a Russia that has no interest in it, pulling missile defense projects from Poland and the Czech Republic, without previous consultation, leaving them open to Russian reprisals and now distrustful of America, on and on. Our actions on the world stage are explainable only by malice or misinterpretation. I honestly believe that for a term and a half, this administration has tried to rationalize the real world into their notion of how it ought to be, the results being that the only consistency of our foreign policy this far has been its failures.

I hope – the world hopes – that the administration soon reasserts American leadership in a fulminating Middle East, a desperately frightened East Europe, a dangerous Pacific Rim and our own negligence along our southern border.

The Hope is here, now we anxiously await the Change.

[1] Terence P Jeffrey, Flashback – We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, CNS News.com, June 12 2014, 1228EDT.

Reset the Reset


We threw away ten years of frustrating work on Iran when we relaxed billions of dollars worth of sanctions just as they were beginning to work – let’s don’t repeat that blunder vis-à-vis Russia. Vladimir Putin, for the first time in this Ukrainian kerfuffle, has found himself between a rock and a hard place. The West has finally initiated the sanctions that we should have started with – true sectoral isolation of their state-owned banks, prohibiting export of technologies needed by Russia’s oil and gas industry and defense industry, and the importation of Russian arms. This will do real damage to Russia’s fragile economy. Better late than never, but we’ve waited until they’ve had time to adjust their activities to a mission-creep of gentle sanctions that exerted no real pressure. What shortens Putin’s chain is the downing of the Malaysian 777, killing nearly 300 innocents, including children and elderly. It was in this context that Washington announced it had monitored Russian testing of intermediate range cruise missiles, a violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Under any other administration, this would be a not-too-thinly-veiled threat to deploy our own intermediate range nuclear-capable platforms in central, if not eastern, Europe.

According to Konstantin Kalachev, head of the Moscow-based Political Expert Group think-tank, all of this together places Mr Putin in a position chess players call “zugzwang”, where each move only worsens the situation.

A little history. When the United Nations and the United States intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, a deal was struck with Russia that they wouldn’t interfere if we didn’t push EU/NATO membership in eastern Europe. That broke down when Ukraine started making overtures to the EU, upon which Russia invaded Georgia on the pretext of protecting Russian ex-patriots in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (which they still occupy, by the way). NATO frightens Mr Putin, in a claustrophobic kind of way. He sees the buffer states in the strategic sense – as speed bumps on the way to Mother Russia, and feels somewhat geopolitically naked without them firmly under his control.

British Prime Minister David Cameron sees this. Western intellectuals have always seen Russia as more European than Asian, but no one has bothered to ask Russia, which, under current stewardship, sees Russia as basically Russia, and everyone else as “Other.” Putin’s Russia has never had any interest in a rapprochement with the West, only the appearance of it, if that would buy Russia time to reorganize itself back into a world power. The whole “Reset” ploy by Secretary Clinton was painfully naïve. Mr Putin never wanted to be vassal to the American economy nor subject to unintelligible American political whims. As stated earlier, he saw it as time multiplier – a way to string the spineless administration along for as long as they would put up with it.

Channeling Tony Blair in a letter to the NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and the 27 other member nations, Prime Minister Cameron said that NATO needs to rethink its long-term relationship with Russia and its ability to respond quickly to any threat. The alliance needs to beef up its force of rapidly deployable land, sea and air assets, and its special operations forces[1]. To this should be added a renewal of our missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, this time with the ability to engage cruise missiles. The mere process of arranging for such a move would rivet Mr Putin’s attention.

As previously discussed in these pages, Russia’s fragile economy is dependent upon $100 oil[2]. And that was before Russian banks were isolated from Western banks, source of overwhelmingly most financing of Russian oil and gas projects. Western oil and gas technology has also been cut off. Chinese banks are unlikely to take up this slack, though they may press for a Russo-Chinese pipeline from Siberian gas fields down into PRC. In the spirit of the preceding show of intent, we should immediately green-light the Keystone XL pipeline and ask American oil companies to forward requests for exploration on federal lands. The administration should inform the coastal states that they can license oil and gas exploration off shore. Combined with unavailability of Western capital and technology, this will chill Russian markets.

I would stay away from further sanctions. The above mentioned items set trends in motion – the missile defense initiative would take two to five years to reach fruition, and the oil and gas initiative would take five years to reach the market. Sanctions are light switches – they can take effect immediately, and would, I think, tend to entrench Mr Putin, perhaps driving him to heighten the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The slower-moving actions are reversible and give Mr Putin time to disengage from the separatists, especially if it can be proven that MH17 was shot down by them (everybody knows it was, but actual proof would end the posturing).

I congratulate Mr Cameron for saying out loud what the world has been waiting for America to say, and maybe … just maybe … Mr Obama won’t make a fool of himself at the upcoming NATO meeting in Wales.

[1] See Richard Lein, Putin in a Ukrainian pickle, AFP, August 3 2014, 0019EDT.

[2] The benchmark oil, Brent light crude, is currently trading at $105 a barrel.