'There’s so much talk, and I don’t think talk solves lots of these problems. In foreign policy, you’re trying to do two things: comfort your friends, and scare the hell out of your enemies, or your potential enemies. A speech like this does not have that effect. Sometimes it is best to just be quiet, and not try to theorize and not try to explain here, and I think the explaining is just not working.'
- Bob Woodward, on the subject of Obama's speech at West Point, Fox News Sunday, 1 June 2014
By Michael Weiss
When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had 100,000 troops in Iraq, and Joe Biden bet everyone his vice presidency that we’d have at least 10,000 today. We do not, but Joe is still vice president. Iraq, meanwhile, is a country largely in thrall to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and its civil war has returned with a vengeance. More than 4,000 Iraqis have died in the first five months of 2014 alone, but that’s all right because our tide of war has receded and the New York Times tends to bury this news well below the fold.
In Afghanistan, America’s longest war is now drawing to a proud close. We plan to leave no US troop presence there after 2016 and we hope the Taliban understands. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda’s core leadership in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan has relocated to the border region between Iraq and Syria, which is at least closer to some of our remaining allies in the Middle East. The CIA likes to say that Al-Qaeda’s new center of gravity in the Levant is the single worst threat to our national security that we now face. And I’ll let them say this now that my re-election campaign is over and it sounds scary enough to justify why I didn’t get more involved in Syria in the first place.
Let’s just leave it at this: the United States faces no direct threat to its national security because several presidents ago, America concluded its Cold War with Russia, once and for all.
Now, some will argue that the last five years have seen a decline in American leadership. They will point to the fact that, probably around the time my party loses the Senate, China will replace the United States as the world’s largest economy in real terms. They will say that a resurgent and revanchist Russia, which has just invaded and annexed a sovereign European territory roughly the size of Maryland, looks at America as a dormant superpower whose bluff is easy to call. They will say that Bashar al-Assad is still in power in Syria three years after I said he must step aside, as if this suggests that we no longer enforce our red lines on dictatorial aggression.
To these critics, I would only pose a few simple questions. Can any nation on earth amass a hashtag campaign on Twitter faster than the United States of America? Has any nation in the history of the world held so many international conferences in Switzerland in so short a period of time? Does any one constitutional republic have a former leader so easy to mock and blame for all the problems that have ensued well after he has gone?
The answer, of course, is no.
America is doing just fine.
And Switzerland, as it happens, is the gift that keeps on giving. It was after a meeting with Swiss President Didier Burkhalter that Vladimir Putin apparently decided not to dispatch some 40,000 Russian troops stationed at his border into Ukraine. A nonaligned ski resort nation famous for cuckoo clocks, chocolate, commodities traders, tax havens, and banking secrecy laws managed to halt the Russian bear in its tracks. We, on the other hand, passed a series of sanctions against a few Kremlin officials and cronies and a handful of mid- to low-level financial institutions, which were mostly laughed off. We also sent a few hundred soldiers into Poland, Estonia, and other places as a minimum show of support for our NATO allies, which fear they’ll be invaded by Russia next. These are the allies, I should remind you, that had been telling us to worry about Russia when I was telling Dmitry Medvedev that after my re-election his boss wouldn’t have to worry about missile defense systems on some of their territories.
Today Russia is isolated. Except of course in Germany, where Rheinmetall, a defense contractor, trained exactly the sort of Russian combat troops and special forces that seized Crimea in March and where 300,000 German jobs depend on exports to Russia. And except for in France, which just sold Putin two Mistral-class amphibious warships. And in Britain, where, thanks to the proliferation of pro-Kremlin oligarchs, Russian influence in the banking and energy sectors and its co-optation of Britain’s political and business classes have never been greater (SoRo: There are now more butlers in London than there were before WWI when the 'upstairs/downstairs' model was still de rigueur and firmly entrenched). It’s also not that isolated in China, which just inked a $400 billion gas deal with Moscow in one of those genuine pivots to Asia we keep hearing about.
But everywhere else: isolated.
As for Ukraine, its uncertain future is certain. The government in Kiev has now to wrest control of its eastern and southern regions from pro-Russian separatists and also more battle-hardened North Caucasian irregulars who have turned up to replace the former. These fifth columnists, many of whom are Russian nationals, have surface-to-air missiles with which they’ve shot down Ukrainian helicopters. They’re also being supervised by Russian military intelligence.
The best part is that we achieved all this without firing a shot ourselves. We didn’t even have to send things like body armor, night vision goggles, helmets, Kevlar vests, and spare tires to Ukraine’s embattled military (SoRo: We sent a few MREs). Joe Biden’s son, however, did join the board of Ukraine's largest private gas provider in a show of solidarity with the people of Maidan.
Let me now address a long-running debate in our foreign policy establishment by willfully misrepresenting it.
There exists today no serious person in punditry or politics who believes that every crisis in the world demands an American military response. But it’s a convenient canard to argue that such people do exist, and that they are many and wrong. To these phantom fanatics I say again: rarely have I seen the exercise of military power provide a definitive answer to a bloody crisis. As someone who believes that his uncle liberated Auschwitz, I know of which I speak.
John McCain does not want to send US troops into Syria. But I like to pretend that he does. My strategic communications team in the White House spent literally minutes coming up with the clever lie that conflated a variety of options for greater US involvement in that country – sorry, there were no good options – with “boots on the ground.”
We’ve done the polling on this. No one wants to hear that phrase any more than they do “shock and awe” or “mission accomplished.” So my administration simply repeats it robotically on every Sunday morning talk show. This convinces Americans that intervention in Syria means boots on the ground. Then we refer back to polls showing that Americans are leery of intervention in Syria on exactly the false terms we’ve laid out for them, to justify our non-interventionist policy. Please remember the elegance of this political trick the next time someone accuses us of incompetence.
True, this gambit hurt us a bit when we spent a few weeks last fall pretending that we were going to bomb Assad’s military installations, since we forced poor John Kerry to argue against our own propaganda before Congress. But it has served us quite well ever since. Reminding people of the Iraq War is a convenient way of getting them to forget about a humanitarian catastrophe which, absent any US soldiers, has claimed about a third the lives of that conflict in a third the time but not quite as many lives as the war in Congo. And why doesn’t anyone talk about Congo?
This would have been the ideal moment in my speech to mention the triumph of steadfast diplomacy over war. An earlier draft did indeed carry a reference to America’s multilateral effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, but since I wrote that draft, I’ve learned that Assad is keeping eight percent of his precursor stocks and that he’s only dismantled five out of 18 chemical weapons productions facilities, which means he can manufacturing toxic gas again someday if he likes. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been very polite about not declaring this deal to be a dead-letter, but I hear it’s about to announce that Syria will miss its June deadline for the complete elimination of its chemical weapons program, a deadline which had been enshrined in one of two UN Security Council resolutions we managed to pass on Syria albeit with many Russian-built loopholes. Also, there are credible allegations that Assad is now dropping chlorine bombs on people.
History will bear witness to this missed deadline and to these chlorine bombs.
But I think it’s at least worth mentioning that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu counts this disarmament deal a success for Israel. And he hates me.
There were also those who advocated that training and arming Syria’s rebels might have made a difference had we done it earlier and more robustly. Such loose talk from people in offices in New York and Washington and my former cabinet is dangerous. The fact is, these rebels were wholly unknown to us for two years, then they were known to us as farmers and engineers incapable of fighting a conventional army. Now they’re known to us a bit, but not enough to be trusted with the kind of surface-to-air missiles Putin is sending to his rebels in Ukraine. Even a few missiles could stop or deter Assad’s barrel bombs, but it’s important to emphasize in this speech that nothing can stop those bombs because some faraway problems are just too inexorable to do anything about.
Excuses can seem a lot like solemn wisdom when delivered in just the right tone of voice.
That said, I am, as you know, a reasonable pragmatist devoid of the ideological trappings and tunnel vision that afflict my critics on the left and the right. So I’ll tell you what. Let’s compromise. Today I am asking Congress to authorize a $5 billion counterterrorism partnerships fund to help us kill the Al-Qaeda we missed with drones and JSOC teams and military occupations. Syria has quite a lot of Al-Qaeda and since no one wants to see American lives lost there defeating terrorism, we’ll use Syrian lives instead.
I will increase America’s support for the Syrian rebels best capable of fighting terrorists and give them just enough materiel to keep them from defeating the Assad regime. The rebels whom the CIA lethargically trained in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon will be now lethargically trained by the Pentagon in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. They will be America’s newest, but wholly expendable, JSOCs in the Middle East. Everyone else in this country outsources, why can’t the commander-in-chief?
This limited and specific program of support will also ensure that the state institutions of Syria will be maintained because while US-trained rebels are busy fighting terrorists, Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran will consolidate more fallen terrain. They can then thank us later by getting down to the real business of negotiating a political solution to the conflict, which I still maintain is the best way forward for Syria even if both of its chief arbiters, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, became quitters. The mullahs will also be more amenable to singing a permanent deal on their nuclear program if we let them control most, but not all, of Syria.
Will a political solution work now that we’ve ironed out all the kinks? I’ll be honest. It’s 50/50. But there have been encouraging signs. The CIA put out feelers to Hezbollah a while back by sharing intelligence with it about radical Sunni groups in Lebanon. Iran’s President Rouhani personally told me just how much that meant to him when we had a brief phone chat in September.
Does this reflect a shift or change in my strategy toward Syria? You will read tomorrow in the Washington Post and the New York Times that I am making a “subtle” but “cautious” policy “adjustment.” I hope that many lazy journalists will point out that this decision I’ve taken is the yield of months of careful deliberation by a president who is not a cowboy but is deeply, almost religiously, wary of US involvement in other people’s civil wars. But it’s still, I hope they say, a sign of progress.
I also sincerely hope that the headlines of the articles that get written about this speech will more brazenly and disingenuously suggest that I’ve finally seen the light and am going to take the worst foreign policy crisis of my presidency seriously. This will buy me time with the annoying Syrian opposition and take the pressure off my friends in liberal think tanks and in the Democratic National Committee who are starting to get nervous.
A long-awaited formula for success? It is for me, and I’m president.
May God bless our men and women in uniform. And may God bless the United States of America!