Obama’s Two-Faced Foreign Policy

Exclusive: President Obama’s Syrian strategy is getting roundly denounced as incoherent, which while true is really a reflection of his failure to fully break with neocon-style interventionism even when he realizes the futility of the strategy, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The mystery of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has always been whether President Barack Obama has two separate strategies: one “above the table” waving his arms and talking tough like Official Washington’s arm-chair warriors do and another “below the table” where he behaves as a pragmatic realist, playing footsy with foreign adversaries.

From the start, Obama surrounded himself with many hawkish advisers such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gen. David Petraeus, National Security Council aide Samantha Power, etc. and mostly read the scripts that they wrote for him. But then he tended to drag his feet or fold his arms when it came to acting on their warmongering ideas.

Friday’s decision to tank the hapless $500 million training program for “moderate” Syrian rebels is a case in point. Obama joined in the hyperbolic rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, lining up with the neocons and liberal interventionists demanding “Assad must go,” but Obama has remained unenthusiastic about their various wacky schemes for overthrowing Assad.

In 2012, Obama resisted plans from Petraeus, Clinton and other hawks to invest significantly in a program for training and arming rebels and to impose a no-fly zone over rebel-controlled territory inside Syria, which would require destroying Syria’s air defenses and much of its air force. In other words, it would have been a major act of war with the prospect of the kind of bloody chaos that a similar “responsibility to protect” strategy — pushed by Clinton and Power — unleashed on Libya in 2011 and that continues to the present.

Among other problems of the Petraeus-Clinton scheme for Syria such as being a gross violation of international law the plan would have amounted to support for international terrorism given the thorough terrorist infiltration of the Syrian rebel movement. And it almost certainly would not have achieved the goal of a moderate “regime change.” The far more likely outcome would have been even worse sectarian bloodshed and quite possibly a victory for Al Qaeda or a related terrorist band.

In one candid moment, Obama told  New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman that it was “a fantasy” to think that such a U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel force could do much good. Nevertheless, Obama eventually caved in to political/media pressure and agreed to a “covert” CIA training mission and later to the $500 million program which, the Pentagon says, put about “four or five” fighters into the field in Syria.

Besides the obvious failure to field a significant Pentagon-trained “moderate” force, there was the additional problem that the “moderate” CIA-trained rebels kept sharing their military skills and weapons with coalitions of Syrian rebels, such as the Army of Conquest dominated by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, and/or the Islamic State. Many U.S.-supplied weapons ended up in the hands of the Army of Conquest, which used U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles against the Syrian army around the city of Idlib.

Whether intentionally or not, the U.S. policy was advancing the prospects of a Sunni terrorist victory in Syria, which could lead to a bloodbath of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other “infidels” as well as driving millions more Syrian refugees into Turkey and Europe, thus spreading the destabilization of the Middle East into the middle of Europe.

So, by pulling the plug on the $500 million training program, Obama was finally facing up to reality that it would be a humanitarian and strategic disaster if Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State defeated Assad’s Syrian army. At his press conference on Oct. 2, Obama even blurted out that most of the “half-baked ideas” for intervening in Syria were just “a bunch of mumbo jumbo.”

But Obama could not fully bring himself to repudiate the U.S. military interference, replacing the failed training program with another scheme that would simply give weapons and ammunition to some rebel leaders considered reliable in the battle against the Islamic State a compromise approach that even the hawkish New York Times editorial page deemed “hallucinatory.”

A Schizophrenic Approach

In essence, these inconsistencies between Obama’s words and deeds reflect the schizophrenic nature of Obama’s “above-the-table” and “below-the-table” split personality.

While the “above-the-table” Obama continues to rant against Assad and Russia’s decision to step up its support for his government, the “under-the-table” Obama appears to recognize that the Russian entrance into the war is not the catastrophe that Official Washington, including Obama and his advisers, have made it out to be. Indeed, despite the fiery rhetoric from Obama and his aides, there is a logical correlation between Obama’s core interests in Syria and those of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Obama has resisted the idea of committing hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to another full-scale war in the Middle East, which might well be the inevitable result of a victorious Islamic State engaging in mass executions of “infidels” in Damascus or of Al Qaeda transforming Syria into a new more central location to plot terror attacks on the West.

The prospects for a terrorist victory are diminished if the Russian air support and Iranian ground assistance can help the Syrian military roll back the gains of the Islamic State and the Army of Conquest, which is dominated by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front.

So, the logical move for the “under-the-table” Obama would be to cooperate with Putin on a peace initiative that shelves the “Assad must go” rhetoric in favor of practical cooperation with Russia in arranging a political power-sharing government between Assad and the “moderate” Sunni politicians who have lived off U.S. largesse and thus are susceptible to American pressure.

Even more importantly, Obama could finally get serious about clamping down on Saudi, Qatari, Turkish and Israeli support for the extremist Syrian rebels, finally putting some teeth into the theory that support for terrorism is indistinguishable from acts of terrorism.

But the “above-the-table” Obama seems frightened by the domestic political repercussions if he were to make such rational moves, so he continues to rant about Assad as “a brutal, ruthless dictator” who “drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children” as if these crude bombs are some uniquely diabolical weapons and as if Assad were targeting “innocent children” when there is no evidence of that. Such crude propaganda is then used to justify Obama repeating his dubious mantra: “Assad must go!”

Obama also fears neocon Sen. John McCain, the former Republican presidential nominee whom Obama defeated in 2008 but who is still invited onto all the U.S. news shows to berate the President for not escalating the Syrian, Ukrainian and other conflicts around the globe.

Plus, Obama sees himself surrounded by his own neocons like Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and liberal interventionists like Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power. He must realize that such ideologues won’t shake their commitment to “regime change” in Syria.

Fear of ‘Softness’

Clearly, Obama is to blame for his administration’s appointees, whether it was the misguided “Team of Rivals” at the start of his presidency or the current mix of mostly non-entities and neocon-lites in his second term. But the low quality of these officials is also a comment on how thin the Democratic foreign-policy bench is after three-and-a-half decades of cowering before Republican and media accusations about the Democrats showing “un-American” softness.

Today’s Democrats are not able to formulate a foreign policy argument that separates enlightened American interests from imperialist adventures. They generally accept the neocon narratives about “bad guys” and then either acquiesce to another “regime change” operation, as Obama and others did in Libya in 2011, or they drag their heels to slow or obstruct the most dangerous schemes.

The vast majority of the Democratic foreign policy “experts” who have survived politically either have become “me-too” echoes of the Republican neocons (the likes of Hillary Clinton) or have adopted a militant “humanitarianism” favoring either coups or war in the name of “human rights” (the likes of Samantha Power).

You do have some establishment Democrats, such as Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, who probably know better but have grown accustomed to accommodating to neocon and liberal-hawk pressures. Biden and Kerry both overrode their better judgments to vote for the Iraq War in 2002 and they have echoed the neocon tough talk about Syria and Ukraine.

But Biden and Kerry probably represent the most realistic of the mainstream Democrats, the most in line with the “under-the-table” Obama. Biden opposed the pointless but bloody Afghan War “surge” in 2009; he also battled Secretary of State Clinton over her desires for military intervention in Libya and Syria. For his part, Kerry as Secretary of State executed Obama’s negotiation of a nuclear deal with Iran, an approach that Clinton had resisted.

Still, the foreign policy realism of Biden and Kerry is spotty at best. Both have run with the neocon/liberal-hawk pack in escalating tensions with Russia over Ukraine, and Kerry rushed to dangerous judgments blaming Assad for the Aug. 21, 2013 sarin gas attack outside Damascus and Russia for the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine.

Not even a progressive like Sen. Bernie Sanders articulates sensible alternatives to the neocon/liberal-hawk narratives, though he did vote against the Iraq War and generally has favored less aggressive actions overseas. Still, no one of prominence in the Democratic Party has charted a comprehensive strategy for a non-imperialist U.S. foreign policy, an incoherence that helps explain the contradictory aspects of Obama’s approach to the world.

Whereas the dominant ideology among the Republicans remains neoconservatism, the primary approach of the Democrats is “liberal interventionism,” but there really isn’t much difference between the two in practical terms. Indeed, arch-neocon Robert Kagan has said he is comfortable calling himself a “liberal interventionist.”

Loving ‘Stratcom’

Both neocons and liberal interventionists favor “regime change” strategies as a principal feature of U.S. foreign policy, whether through “color revolutions” or “responsibility to protect” military invasions. They also rely heavily on “strategic communications” or “Stratcom,” a blend of psy-ops, propaganda and P.R., to bring both the American people and the global public into line.

That’s why once a propaganda theme is developed such as blaming Assad for the sarin attack and Russia for the MH-17 shoot-down there are no revisions or corrections even when the evidence leads in a different direction. The false narrative must be maintained because it is useful as a Stratcom weapon to discredit and damage an adversary in the eyes of the public.

Even when Obama knows better, he sticks with the Stratcom, too, all the better to beat up “an enemy.” Obama may drop the false allegations from future speeches, but he won’t retract what he has said before. Note that he has said little or nothing about either the sarin case or the MH-17 incident after initially wielding them as propaganda clubs against Assad and Putin, respectively.

So, instead of telling the whole truth to the American people, Obama just replaces the old attack lines with new ones. Obama’s latest comments about the Russians in Syria sounded like premature gloating over the prospect of a Russian “quagmire” in Syria, staking out an early “I-told-you-so” position as if being proved right were more important than resolving the crisis.

But does Obama really want the Russian-backed offensive against Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front and the Islamic State to fail and for the terrorists to win?

That outcome might make for a great talking point at the think tanks and on the op-ed pages, but a terrorist victory would be a humanitarian catastrophe for the people of Syria and a strategic disaster for the West, where Europe is already under strain from the flood of Syrian refugees.

One might think that a more mature and responsible approach would be for the United States and the European Union to do all they could to help the Russians succeed by cracking down on countries aiding Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and by facilitating serious peace talks between Assad and “moderate” Sunni politicians.

Perhaps the “under-the-table” Obama will move in that direction in the weeks ahead, but the “above-the-table” Obama seems more afraid of committing a social faux pas that will offend Official Washington. He seems to fear that criticism more than he cares about saving lives and bringing peace to Syria.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.




How Do-Gooders Can Do Bad

“Human rights” organizations have become purveyors of bloody chaos as they advocate Western big-power military attacks on weak countries in the name of “responsibility to protect” one of several purportedly well-intentioned strategies gone awry as Coleen Rowley and Diana Johnstone describe.

By Coleen Rowley and Diana Johnstone

Organizers and participants in the “Creating a Workable World” conference (held this weekend at the University of Minnesota) are undoubtedly sincere. No one wants to live in an unworkable world. The sponsoring World Federalist Movement has historically exercised a strong attraction on progressives, appealing to their generous sentiments and wish for world peace.

However, such a grand, overarching ideal as world federalism or global democracy must be evaluated in light of current circumstances and its track record.

At the end of World War II, it was widely believed that nationalism was the main cause of the horrors that had just devastated much of the world. It was easy to imagine that abolishing nation states would be a step toward ending wars by removing their cause. This sentiment was particularly strong in Western Europe, forming the ideological foundation of the movement that led to European integration, now embodied in the European Union.

In that same period, there was a historic movement going in the opposite direction: the national liberation movements in various colonized countries of the Third World. The political drive for national liberation from European powers, Britain, France, the Netherlands, contributed to establishing national sovereignty as the foundation of world peace, by outlawing aggression. Newly liberated Third World countries felt protected by the principle of national sovereignty, seeing it as essential to independence and even to survival.

But today, 70 years after the end of World War II, experience has provided lessons in the practice of these two contrary ideals: supranational governance and national sovereignty. Not surprisingly, the official voices of the hegemonic world power and its allies tend to cite internal conflicts, especially in weaker Third World countries, as proof that national sovereignty must be violated in order to defend “human rights” and bring democracy. The danger from “genocide” has even become an official U.S.-NATO pretext for advocating and launching military intervention. With disastrous results.

It’s therefore not surprising that Workable World’s keynote speaker, W. Andy Knight, was a supporter of the infamous regime-change war that virtually destroyed Libya, under the guise, paradoxically, of the U.S. and NATO’s “responsibility to protect.” That is not just a side issue: It signals the dirty business of wars and regime-change intrigues currently underway behind the scholarly façade of “global governance.”

We fear that opposing arguments in favor of national sovereignty will probably not be discussed much during this conference. And yet, the European Union has served as an experimental laboratory testing what happens when a large and growing number (now 28) of sovereign states turns over a major part of their rights to supranational governance.

Unified institutionally, the weaker members find themselves dominated by the powerful. Despite decades of speeches proclaiming that “we are all Europeans,” when it comes to the crunch, people revert radically to their national identity. Germans resent Greeks for being debtors; Greeks resent Germans for keeping them in debt. All the more so in that there is no way out.

Elections are increasingly meaningless within the member states, because major economic decisions are taken essentially in Brussels, by the E.U. institutions. This is causing increasing disillusionment and depoliticization in Europe. Europeans take virtually no interest in the European Parliament. They do not feel represented by it, and indeed they are not. Democracy works best in small circumscriptions: Greek city states, Iceland, villages. The bigger it gets, the less “democratic” it can be.

Half a century ago, the functioning ideal was to bring eternal peace to Europe through unity. Today, that institutional unity is creating new divisions and hostility. To put it simply, experience is in the process of killing the ideal and showing why “worldwide parliamentary democracy” may bring more harm than good, at least in the real world as it exists today and will for some time to come.

Diana Johnstone, a Paris-based commentator, is author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO, and Western Delusions and Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton. Coleen Rowley is a retired FBI agent and former legal counsel. [This article originally appeared in the Star-Tribune.]




The Afghan Lesson in Syria

Russian President Putin’s decision to escalate military support for the Syrian government brings to mind earlier interventions in Afghanistan that went badly but that cautionary history and the changed Syrian dynamic also raise the prospects for negotiations, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The Russian military intervention to shore up the Assad regime in Syria, coupled with the previously begun U.S.-led military intervention in the same country, amid uncertainty about U.S. war aims and a reluctance to part with the objective of ousting Assad, presents the specter of a proxy war between Russia and the United States.

Before the specter gets any closer to becoming a reality, we should gain what insights we can from a country that hosted previous proxy warfare, that was the scene of military interventions by both Moscow and Washington, and that continues to be a problem for U.S. policy: Afghanistan. We should learn what lessons we can regarding both risks and opportunities in such places, while understanding the differences as well as the similarities between the conflicts in Afghanistan and Syria.

Whatever other motives Russian President Vladimir Putin has in doing what he is doing today in Syria, shoring up a beleaguered regime that has been a friend and client of Russia is clearly one of the immediate objectives. In that respect the action is very similar to what the Soviet Union did when it threw its forces into Afghanistan in 1979, in an effort to shore up a similarly beleaguered client regime in Kabul.

Another similarity in the two conflicts is that the opposition to each regime comprised a variety of armed groups in a predominantly Sunni Muslim country, with the groups ranging from mostly secular to militant Islamist. And in each case opposition groups received material support from Arab states and, later, from the United States.

So far the Russian military operation in Syria is much smaller than the Soviet expedition in Afghanistan, which at its peak involved 115,000 troops. No Russian ground troops have yet been committed to combat in Syria, although hints from Moscow and the facts on the ground will make it unsurprising if Russian “volunteers” start participating directly in the fight.

Regardless of the discrepancy in size of the two operations, the prospects for quagmire that have faced the Soviets and Russians in each place are comparable. Bashar al-Assad is no more secure today than Afghan President Babrak Karmal was in 1979.

The insecurity in each case has been due not to any direct countervailing military intervention by outside powers, the United States and the USSR/Russia have not used their forces in Afghanistan at the same time as the other did, but to the deep unpopularity of each incumbent regime and the unlikelihood that it ever could form the basis of lasting stability in its country, in the face of persistent and in large part religiously inspired opposition.

How far Vladimir Putin wades into this quagmire before devoting more attention to finding a way out remains to be seen. But we can already say that the situation he faces in Syria is more like Afghanistan in the 1980s than like, say, Ukraine.

In Ukraine he has had the limited objective of keeping Ukraine out of the Western orbit of the European Union and NATO. A relatively low-cost commitment along his own country’s border to maintain a frozen conflict, with the use of a few little green men in unmarked uniforms, may serve that purpose. The conflict in Syria will not freeze, and it does not serve Russian purposes well to be propping up endlessly a besieged client regime in control of only a fraction of its country’s territory.

The Afghan mujahedin’s war against the Soviets is the subject of fond Cold War memories of many people on the U.S. side of the Cold War divide. The effort, begun under Jimmy Carter and continued under Ronald Reagan, to supply the mujahedin is widely perceived as having been instrumental in defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan, a defeat that in turn is often seen as contributing significantly to the downfall of the Soviet Union itself.

The supply of man-portable air defense systems, the famous Stinger, to the rebels was the centerpiece of this aid. But it would be dangerous to attempt something comparable in Syria, where U.S. and allied aircraft and not just Russians operate. Distributing such systems to anyone in the fractured Syria opposition would result in a significant chance they would be used against American planes.

One of the principal lessons from Afghanistan is that defeat of a despised regime does not usher in peace, let alone anything resembling democracy. When the Afghan regime of Najibullah, whom the Soviets installed after Karmal demonstrated his inability to get control of the situation, fell three years after the last Soviet troops left, civil war continued unabated, with different militias that had received U.S. aid battling among themselves.

This led to the Taliban sweeping to power over most (but not all) of the country, to the Taliban playing host to the Arabs of Al Qaeda, and the rest is history. And in a later phase of Afghan history, U.S. ouster of the Taliban again failed to bring anything resembling peace to Afghanistan.

The role of extremists and of terrorists who have struck against the United States and the West ought to be of high concern to Americans reflecting on history of the Afghan conflict, and on how earlier American policymakers may have focused too narrowly and shortsightedly on defeating the Soviets. The comparison with Syria ought to be too obvious to need much reflection, given the current reality of the radical group ISIS, as well as an Al Qaeda affiliate, forming a major part of the alternative to the Assad regime.

The Afghan experience as well as the Syrian conflict itself show why the oft-voiced counterfactual about how a bigger and earlier U.S. involvement in the Syrian war would somehow have produced a more viable and effective “moderate” opposition is invalid.

The post-Najibullah phase of Afghan history demonstrated the pattern seen elsewhere as well, and being seen today in Syria, of radicals crowding out moderates in a situation of prolonged warfare and instability. It is in the nature of such situations for such a pattern to prevail, civil war being an inherently immoderate thing to wage. In Afghanistan, the Stingers and other U.S. aid bought the United States little or nothing in the way of subsequent influence.

One of the biggest, and most relevant for current policy questions, differences between the Soviet phase of the Afghan war and the current war in Syria is that there isn’t a Cold War any more. There is no reason today to gauge the advance and retreat of U.S. interests worldwide in terms of the retreat and advance of the country whose capital is Moscow, as was habitually done during the Cold War.

If Russia were to maintain all of the position and influence it hopes to maintain in whatever part of Syria the Assad regime controls, it would be small potatoes compared to how successfully the Soviet Union competed for influence throughout the Middle East during most of the Cold War.

Countering Russia wasn’t even part of the original reason for the United States to get involved in the Syrian conflict. It would be one of the worst examples of mission creep if this comes to be seen as a reason, and doubly unfortunate if the potential proxy war were allowed to become a real one.

Probably the biggest single lesson from the Afghan example concerns the quagmire potential, as demonstrated by the Soviets’ experience as their military efforts dragged on through the 1980s, and as demonstrated by the U.S. experience after the mission of retaliation for 9/11 and ousting the Taliban and Al Qaeda from their comfortable places crept into being a nation-building operation.

In applying the quagmire dimension to Syria, think about how U.S. forces now have been in Afghanistan for 14 years (which doesn’t even count, of course, the time during which the United States was giving significant material aid to Afghan insurgents, a process that began more than three decades ago). Then think about the possibility of debate in Washington in 2029, 14 years from now, about how many troops the United States ought to be keeping in Syria.

Vladimir Putin’s gambit in Syria has poured fuel on a fire and has made a complicated and dangerous situation on the ground (and in the air) even more complicated and dangerous. But for now we ought to be glad to the extent that the costs of proto-quagmire fall on Russia and not on the United States.

These include not only the material costs of fighting a war but also the extremist-fueling hatred that comes from stuff that happens, even inadvertently, in the course of fighting a war, such as, say, bombing a hospital. Here another lesson from Afghanistan is how the United States has for some time now been wearing out its welcome, as reflected in opinion polls that show much previous friendship and admiration for the United States among Afghans having dissipated.

We also ought to look to other silver linings in the gambit, which admittedly assume that Putin is as smart as he often is cracked up to be: that the Russian leader knows the only way to step out of a costly quagmire is to work diligently with other outside powers to negotiate some sort of resolution of the Syrian conflict; and that through Russia’s intervention he has acquired more of the sort of leverage over the Assad regime that will be necessary to effect any such resolution.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)