Politics, et Cetera

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Tuesday, September 3, 2013

They Said It:

They arranged and re-arranged their artless little plans for another hour, while Kim shivered with cold and pride.  The humour of the situation tickled the Irish and the Oriental in his soul.  Here were the emissaries of the dread Power of the North, very possibly as great in their own land as Mahbub or Colonel Creighton, suddenly smitten helpless.  One of them, he privately knew, would be lame for a time.  They had made promises to Kings.  Tonight they lay out somewhere below him, chartless, foodless, tentless, gunless—except for Hurree Babu, guideless.  And this collapse of their Great Game (Kim wondered to whom they would report it), this panicky bolt into the night, had come about through no craft of Hurree’s or contrivance of Kim’s, but simply, beautifully, and inevitably as the capture of Mahbub’s fakir-friends by the zealous young policeman at Umballa.

‘They are there — with nothing; and, by Jove, it is cold!  I am here with all their things.  Oh, they will be angry!  I am sorry for Hurree Babu.’

Kim might have saved his pity, for though at that moment the Bengali suffered acutely in the flesh, his soul was puffed and lofty.

Rudyard Kipling, Kim, 1901.



Just over a decade ago, while the American military was in the very early stages of its invasion of Iraq, we noted that, if nothing else, the attacks of 9/11 and President Bush’s subsequent coalition-building strategy had set the stage for the formation of the first serious post-Cold-War foreign policy paradigm, one based almost entirely on “enlightened self-interest.”  The gist of the paradigm was as follows.

Immediately after the al Qaeda attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, George Bush issued an ultimatum to the world:  “either you stand with us, or you stand with the terrorists.  Period.”  In the several months following, most nations and leaders decided that they stood with the Americans, if for no other reason than they knew that the terrorists would not win, could not win a head-to-head confrontation with the American military.

Old, Cold-War-era foreign policy partialities no longer mattered.  The world had changed, and even America’s old adversaries knew that it was in their interests to align themselves with the planet’s sole remaining superpower, particularly in its battle against a ragtag group of religious fanatics.  We put it this way:  “When presented with the option of choosing between the world’s economic power house, the sine qua non of global growth, and a religious wacko living in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan, the choice was not that difficult for most nations.”

This pro-American unanimity did not, however, last long.  By the time Bush and Cheney began making public their plans to topple Saddam Hussein, some of the world’s biggest players – and some the United States’ oldest allies – had determined that their interests and American interests would not always align perfectly during the “War on Terror.”  And so, in pursuit of “enlightened self-interest” these nations took the bold and unexpected step of opposing American endeavors and instead looked out for themselves.  We detailed this unanticipated break and its contribution to the new paradigm as follows:

Suddenly all sorts of new considerations entered into the determination of the definition of “enlightened self-interest.”  Suddenly, choosing America’s side, to the exclusion of all other sides, didn’t make sense to some nations.  Most importantly, the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia began to question the attractiveness of living in a world without their friend Saddam Hussein running the oil rich Iraq.  And other leaders wondered whether a strong American presence in a post-Saddam Iraq would be desirable . . . .

This is the world in which we live.  This is the real world.  This is the world of the 21st century.   And it will be the world of the 22nd century if there is a world then.  Most importantly, this is the world in which the financial markets are going to operate for a long time.  It is a world of treachery and danger and uncertainty . . . .

Not surprisingly, France was the first nation to publicly acknowledge that it no longer felt the need to feign kinship with America, since it no longer needed America’s protection from the Soviet Union, or the Germans, for that matter.  I say “not surprisingly” because it was, after all, Charles de Gaulle who first put the French attitude toward friendship with other nations in perspective when he proclaimed that “Nations don’t have friends, they have interests.”

This final bit, the quote from de Gaulle, became our short-hand for the War on Terror foreign policy for the remainder of the decade.  You want to know why Russia does what it does?  Or why Israel or even the United States do what they do?  They do so out of self-interest.  They do what is best for themselves.

And then along came Barack Obama, as unfit as anyone could possibly be for a senior leadership position in a rough and tumble world governed solely on the basis of self–interest.  For starters, his long-time and self-proclaimed alienation from and even revulsion for America’s past role in world history has made it virtually impossible for him to determine the exact nature of the nation’s “interests.”  After all, in his and his father’s view, America’s past support of its traditional “interests” have been catastrophic for the rest of the world.

Now, we will tread lightly here.  We don’t mean to imply that Obama is “anti-American,” or that he is trying, somehow, to undermine American global interests, as some of his critics maintain.  That said, it is undeniable that he, more than any other president in American history, views himself as a sort of secular redeemer of America’s virtue.  In practice, this means that his foreign policy appears only marginally to be American-centered.  This is confusing to say the least, and is made more so by the fact that it is impossible to figure out on what exactly it is centered.  Worse yet, it is not at all clear that Obama himself knows.

It is worth noting in this context, we think, that Barack Obama’s closest and most trusted foreign policy advisor is Samantha Power, who currently serves as the American ambassador to the United Nations.  Power has been Obama’s chief foreign affairs consultant for the better part of a decade.  And she has, over that time, consistently advised the Senator-cum-President that American power should be used in pursuit not of American self-interest but of “humanitarian interventionism.”  Two years ago, while Obama was “leading from behind” in Libya, Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, provided the details:

Samantha Power has refused to give interviews of late, and the White House seems to be downplaying her influence on the intervention in Libya, and on the president generally.  Yet numerous press reports indicate that Power “has Obama’s ear” and was in fact critical to his decision on Libya.  Liberal foreign-policy expert Steve Clemons actually calls Power “the primary architect” of our Libyan intervention.  The New York Times has gone so far as to characterize our humanitarian action as “something of a personal triumph” for Power.

If anything, these reports may underplay Power’s influence on Obama.  The two met in 2005, when Obama contacted Power after reading her Pulitzer Prize–winning book on genocide, A Problem from Hell.  Power quickly became then-senator Obama’s senior foreign-policy adviser, and so has a longer history with the president than do many others on his foreign-policy team.

A survey of Power’s writings indicates her long preoccupation with a series of issues now associated with Obama’s most controversial foreign-policy moves.  In a 2003 piece for the New York Times, for example, Power bemoaned the reluctance of American policymakers to apologize to other countries for our supposed past mistakes.  While Obama’s controversial (and so far unproductive) willingness to engage with the leaders of rogue states was initially attributed to a novice error during a 2007 debate with Hillary Clinton, the need to deal directly with even the worst rogue states is a major theme of Power’s second book, Chasing the Flame.  That book was written in 2007, while Power was advising Obama’s presidential campaign.   A 2007 piece by Power in The New York Times Book Review attacked the phrase “War on Terror,” which of course the Obama administration has since dropped.

In an appearance at Columbia University, just hours before the president’s Libya address, Power herself identified the protection of the citizens of Benghazi as the core purpose of our current intervention.  Yet it should not be thought that Power’s shaping of Obama’s reasons and actions ends there.  Almost a decade ago, Power laid out a series of secondary, interest-based justifications for humanitarian interventions — e.g., avoiding the creation of militarized refugees who might undermine regional stability, and flashing a discouraging signal to regional dictators — all of which were featured in Obama’s speech to the nation.  To be sure, these “interest-based” justifications were largely rationalizations for an intervention driven overwhelmingly by humanitarian considerations.  Yet Power’s broader and longstanding framing of the issue has been adopted wholesale by Obama.

In Power’s view, to be credible, humanitarian interventions must respond to immediate danger (thus Obama’s waiting until the militarily unpropitious moment when Benghazi itself was under imminent threat), must be supported by multilateral bodies (thus the resort to the U.N., NATO, and the Arab League in preference to the U.S. Congress), “must forswear up front . . . commercial or strategic interests in the region” (thus the disavowal of regime change as a goal of our multilateral action), and must “commit to remaining for a finite period” (as Obama has pledged to do in Libya).  Even NATO’s threat to bomb the rebels if they kill civilians (which struck many as unrealistic, and at cross-purposes with our supposed military goals) is foreshadowed in Power’s writings, which highlight the need to police both sides in any humanitarian action.

For weeks now, various politicians, pundits, and other observers have been asking why Obama feels such a strong need to intervene in Syria.  To them, it seems strange that he would choose to take sides with al Qaeda against Assad, thereby aiding America’s sworn enemy, while at the same time further alienating many of the other the key players in the region, including Russia and Iran.  In response to these queries, Obama has, to date, articulated no strategic American interest on behalf of his proposed intervention.  Nor has he spelled out any specific goals.  And he certainly hasn’t tried to explain how those goals – whatever they are – will be achieved.  The result is that no one in the world can quite figure out what he thinks he’s doing or why he thinks that lobbing a few missiles at the Assad regime will make anything better.

But Obama’s intentions become a little clearer when looked at through the prism of Samantha Powers’ influence; that is, if you understand that his “strategic” goals here have very little, if anything, to do with America’s short-term interests, and that, in the grand scheme of things, the only possible legitimate American interest is both far removed and largely indefinable.

Think about it.  In the 30-plus months that the Syrian civil war has been raging, both sides have massacred thousands of people.  Both sides have been vicious.  Both have been bloody.  And the death toll has risen inexorably.  Yet, up until a couple of weeks ago, Obama had seen no reason to intervene.  So what changed?  Well, chemical weapons, that’s what, which in the Obama/Powers moral calculus are a great “humanitarian” threat.

Now, we can argue all day about whether this is a sane distinction.  And we can probably muster up arguments from “experts” on both sides of the issue.  In the end, though, none of this matters.  All that matters is that Obama cares about the distinction, and, moreover, that he sees it as a legitimate casus belli.  Whether he’ll be able to convince the U.S. Congress or the American people of this remains to be seen.  But, either way, we suspect that Obama will do something in Syria.  And this something, will be, as strange as it may seem, the result of the fact that his moral sensibilities – such as they are – have been offended.

It should go without saying that this foreign policy strategy will prove absolutely disastrous over the long run.  For the last seven decades or so, the United States has been called “the world’s policeman.”  But this is a misnomer.  The United States has consistently acted on the global stage not because it feels an obligation to “protect and serve,” but to expand or defend real and explicable American interests.

For a while, perhaps, Obama and those who share his “humanitarianism” will be able to make the case that American interests at least approximate the cause of the global greater good.  But eventually the two will diverge substantively, and it will become evident that the pursuit of abstract global goals over concrete national goals is a prescription for far greater death, destruction, and chaos than would the blatant and impenitent pursuit of America’s national interests.

There is, however, a bigger problem and a more immediate concern.  While Obama is pursuing the ends that help him and his UN ambassador feel noble, the rest of the nations in world will continue to pursue their own national interests.  And needless to say, those interests will put the vast majority of them in direct conflict with the Obama administration.

The most obvious example of a nation-state pursuing its own “interests” rather than the professed intentions of its “friend” the United States took place last week when the British House of Commons told its Prime Minister, the “Conservative” David Cameron to go take a flying leap.

Cameron, Obama, and nearly everyone else in the world had presumed that parliamentary approval for British cooperation in any attack on Syria was perfunctory.  After all, that’s what the Brits do.  They back their pals in the United States.  And we back them.  It’s what known as the Anglo-American “special relationship.”  And whenever one asks for help, the other responds.  That’s the way it has always been . . . until now.

As of last week, the Brits look out for the Brits.  And if the Americans wish to do something stupid, well . . . the Brits won’t stop them.  But they sure as heck won’t help them either, at least not unless someone somewhere makes a good argument that such help would be in Britain’s national interest.

As we said, Cameron had presumed that parliamentary approval was a given.  So he never bothered to make the case for intervention in terms that his fellow Brits would appreciate, which is to say in terms of their own “enlightened self-interest.”  And without such a case, the Commons said “no.”

Many on both sides of the pond worry that this rejection constitutes an end to the aforementioned “special relationship.”  London’s Guardian put it this way over the weekend:

Defence secretary Philip Hammond has expressed apprehension about the future of Britain’s defence ties with the US.  Hammond’s comments came as John Kerry, the US secretary of state, praised France as the oldest ally of the US and made no mention of Britain.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, the defence secretary showed how the Anglo-American special relationship had been shaken by the parliamentary defeat when he said that France’s renewed alliance with the US placed Britain in an “uncomfortable place”.

Hammond said: “I am disappointed and I am slightly apprehensive.  We have a very close working relationship with the Americans.  It is a difficult time for our armed forces, having prepared to go into this action, to then be stood down and have to watch while the US acts alone or perhaps the US acts with France.”

Asked about the renewed Franco-American alliance, Hammond said: “It’s certainly a reversal of the usual position and it will be an uncomfortable place for many people in the British armed forces who are used to working alongside the Americans as an everyday, normal course of business.”

This, we’re afraid, is utter nonsense.  The special relationship has not been particularly special for the last four-and-a-half years.  In fact, the relationship between Obama and Cameron is strained, just as was the relationship between Obama and Cameron’s predecessor, Gordon Brown.  We won’t bore you with the details, but “the one” has long been dismissive of the British and of their historical role in modern civilization.  And even more importantly, he has never cared much for the purported affinity between the two nations.  The only difference now is that the Brits are finally awakening to the implications of this new relationship.  After all, if Barack won’t look out for his own nation’s interest, then how can they expect him to look out for theirs?  The answer, of course, is that they can’t; that they need to begin going their own way in the world, even if it means telling their special “friends” to sod off.

Unfortunately, though utterly predictable, the British are not the only American friends who have taken the measure of Barack Obama and found him wanting.  It is easy to forget sometimes that the Saudi Arabians are one of the United States’ oldest and most reliable partners in the Arab world, notwithstanding their affiliation with and monetary support for the Salafi sect of Islam, which is the religio-ideological wellhead of al Qaeda and much of the rest of Sunni Islamism.

Indeed, ever since the Roosevelt Administration recognized the kingdom in 1933, the Saudis have been a critical component of American global strategic relations.  During World War II, the United States treated the Saudis and their kingdom (and their oil) as vital American interests.  After the war, the Americans and Saudis established a mutual defense agreement.  During the 1960s, the latter half of the ‘70s (after the Arab oil embargo), and throughout the 1980s, the Saudis served as a lynchpin in the American containment of the Soviets and, eventually, as a counterbalance to the Islamic Republic in Iran.  All of which is to say that the Saudi-American partnership goes back many years and has served a number of purposes for both countries.  And that makes the following, from the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, all the more disheartening, if unsurprising:

[Prince] Bandar [bin Sultan al-Saud] discussed the potential cooperation between the two countries if an understanding could be reached on a number of issues, especially Syria.  He discussed at length the matter of oil and investment cooperation, saying, “Let us examine how to put together a unified Russian-Saudi strategy on the subject of oil.  The aim is to agree on the price of oil and production quantities that keep the price stable in global oil markets. . . . We understand Russia’s great interest in the oil and gas present in the Mediterranean Sea from Israel to Cyprus through Lebanon and Syria.  And we understand the importance of the Russian gas pipeline to Europe.  We are not interested in competing with that.  We can cooperate in this area as well as in the areas of establishing refineries and petrochemical industries.  The kingdom can provide large multi-billion-dollar investments in various fields in the Russian market.  What’s important is to conclude political understandings on a number of issues, particularly Syria and Iran . . .

The key to the relations between our two countries starts by understanding our approach to the Syrian issue.  So you have to stop giving [the Syrian regime] political support, especially at the UN Security Council, as well as military and economic support.  And we guarantee you that Russia’s interests in Syria and on the Mediterranean coast will not be affected one bit.  In the future, Syria will be ruled by a moderate and democratic regime that will be directly sponsored by us and that will have an interest in understanding Russia’s interests and role in the region.”

Walter Russell Mead rightly calls this development “jaw-dropping.”  For the Saudis to go to Russia, for Bandar to make a pilgrimage to Putin, for the Royal House of Saud to abandon the Americans and seek common ground with a former KGB thug is truly and utterly amazing.  But then, what would you expect?  As Mead wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal:

The breach with Saudis came later and this one also seems to have caught the White House by surprise.  By aligning itself with Turkey and Mr. Morsi’s Egypt, the White House was undercutting Saudi policy in the region and siding with Qatar’s attempt to seize the diplomatic initiative from its larger neighbor.

Many Americans don’t understand just how much the Saudis dislike the Brotherhood and the Islamists in Turkey.  Not all Islamists are in accord; the Saudis have long considered the Muslim Brotherhood a dangerous rival in the world of Sunni Islam.  Prime Minister Erdogan’s obvious hunger to revive Turkey’s glorious Ottoman days when the center of Sunni Islam was in Istanbul is a direct threat to Saudi primacy.  That Qatar and its Al Jazeera press poodle enthusiastically backed the Turks and the Egyptians with money, diplomacy and publicity only angered the Saudis more.  With America backing this axis — while also failing to heed Saudi warnings about Iran and Syria — Riyadh wanted to undercut rather than support American diplomacy.

This then, in short, is an obvious case of the Saudis recognizing their interests and deciding, regretfully but firmly, to tell their “friend” that they would no longer do his bidding.  And in all honesty, can you blame them?

The interesting part of all of this – the House of Commons vote, Bandar’s trip to Moscow, etc. – is that it has all taken place in the light of day.  There has been nothing covert or secret or even slightly veiled.  Bandar didn’t sneak across the Russian border in the dead of night, just as the Brits didn’t send a secret cable offering their regrets for not being able to participate in the great raid on Syria.  Given this, one can be forgiven for wondering what adjective, beyond “interesting,” would best describe what must certainly be going on behind the scenes in the murky world of back door diplomacy and gamesmanship.

You see, right or wrong, the United States is being viewed by virtually everyone as all but entirely out the game.  Not only is it run by a fool whom no one can understand or trust, but its military has publicly declared that it doesn’t have enough money to support a concerted action of any duration.  The long and the short of it then, is that the whole world is up for grabs.  Chaos and old night have taken the field.  The long knives are out.  Deals are being cut.  Russia has a realistic vision of becoming a great world power once more.  China is salivating.  Countries like Iran and even North Korea have a chance of global leadership.

And then there is Israel.  A tiny nation with a strong and determined military, armed with nuclear weapons, surrounded by enemies, fully aware that if it is defeated by these enemies, every single Israeli citizen will be brutally murdered, and a slogan etched in blood, “Never again.”

We know that its Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, detests Barack Obama and cannot risk his country’s future on the expectation that America will come to its defense if it is attacked.  We also know that he has said publicly that he believes that the most recent chemical weapons attack by the Assad government is a dry run, a test of sorts posed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to assess the will and the competence of the American president.  And thus we know, or at least have to assume, that the Jewish state is actively involved in negotiating a way to survive the coming time of troubles.  One possibility would be cutting a deal with Russia, which could use its growing influence in the region to keep Israel from being attacked in exchange for a deal involving the development of the Leviathan and Tamar gas fields.

In short, the Great Game, named such by the famous British intelligence officer Arthur Conolly and popularized by the even more famous British poet Rudyard Kipling, has resumed with a vengeance, and every single global player – from Putin to Netanyahu; from Assad to Khameini; from General Sisi to Francois Hollande – is at the table, wheeling and dealing over how best to take advantage of the void left by America’s feckless president, Barack Obama.

We don’t know when it will end.  But we know how.  Or at least we know how Kipling said it would.  Or more specifically as Huree Babu told Kim as they pursued Russian agents through the Indian Himalayas.

“When everyone is dead, the Great Game is finished.  Not before.”


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