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“Just Like Us”: Obama’s Iraq ‘Nap’ Represents Who We Are; Sick Of Being The World’s Policeman

Conservative critics of Barack Obama’s foreign policy are right: it’s vague when articulated and contradictory when enacted. He refuses to act decisively and tunes out the rhetorical bravado of foreign leaders. And if the United States is to avoid another round of pointless bloodshed in the Middle East, that’s the kind of foreign policy our country needs right now. Indeed, it’s the one we want.

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Mitt Romney added to the existing critique of Obama as feckless-bordering-on-fey. The president, his former challenger asserted, was not just ineffectual in his stance toward Iraq and Syria – he was also ignorant. The president, said the former one-term governor of Massachusetts, has “repeatedly underestimated the threats” posed by chaos in Iraq – or “Russia or Assad or Isis or al-Qaida itself”.

The terror that has gripped Iraq over the past week is, no doubt, horrific. When militants claim they’ve massacred 1,700 soldiers, it would be foolish not to give yourself options by moving an aircraft carrier here and toughening up an embassy there – which Obama has done, actively, not through “neglect” or “a nap”, as still more critics claimed over the weekend.

But let’s remember the way we got in too deep: it wasn’t by underestimating the threat Iraq posed to US interests, it was by overestimating it.

“Overestimating” may even be too generous. We created a threat when there was none, not out of whole cloth so much as a web of pride, avarice and insecurity. Obama’s haters on the right – and maybe even some formerly hawkish apologists on the left – need a refresher course on just how much of the Iraq invasion hinged on ego and imagined taunts. It wasn’t all about revenge for Daddy’s loss. Don’t forget the perception in the Bush White House that the president was “weak” in the immediate aftermath of 9/11: the frozen look as he read from My Pet Goat, the hours of hop-scotching around the country, out of sight, as the carnage and panic continued to unfold.

It was Bush’s improvisation of macho defiance – in those moments following his 9/11 lapse into visible doubt – that created the blueprint for these wars that have refused to end. The declaration that the US would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbored them” was made in a speech given less than twelve hours after the first tower was hit. Today, we call that formulation the Bush Doctrine, though anything so hastily conceived hardly merits the title of “doctrine”.

Governments are supposed to be slower to act than people. They are supposed to filter our instinctive desires, not jump on them. It is probably not a coincidence that support for the death penalty in America is at a record low as well. The state’s power to take a life is democracy’s most dubious gift. We have learned that the hard way.

That the Bush administration misled the American people about the reasons for invading Iraq is now all but common knowledge; what we talk about less is why Americans were moved so easily from concern about possible attacks from overseas into almost pornographic nationalism.

Clearly, we were intoxicated by some heady perfume of testosterone and saddle leather that pulled along George W Bush by the nose. When the Iraq war began, nearly 80% of Americans thought it was a good idea. Almost as many approved of how the president was handling it. Irrational exuberance is not just for markets.

How we have sobered since then!

A record high number of people (53%) believe that America is “less powerful and less important than it was ten years ago”; the percentage of those who believe that America should “mind its own business internationally” (52%) is the highest it’s been in 50 years. And support for specific foreign interventions is as wobbly as the reasoning for undertaking them: only 25% of Americans supported air strikes on Syria; just 14% approved of a Nato-led military action in the Ukraine.

The existing members of the GOP leadership, whether visiting Romney’s weekend retreat or a Sunday show set on their way to re-intervention, might well wonder where that reliably woozy patriotism has gone. Certainly, Republicans haven’t developed a tolerance. They sniff the air and howl: “This is another 9/11 in the making,” Lindsey Graham said Sunday on CNN, three days after saying “we’ve got another Benghazi in the making here”. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon blustered: “The White House has a history of ‘considering all options’ while choosing none.”

Would that Bush have been so indecisive.

The mistake by Republicans – and it is one they make in all sorts of situations – is that they confuse a desire for small government and more individual freedom with a government that acts like an individual. They project onto government the desires and fears that animate a person; in the imagination of Republicans “the government” wants all kinds of things: your guns, for instance. And when Republicans have one of their own in the White House, it pleases them to think that he doesn’t just represent the country but is the country.

Perhaps it is a function of having a president who is so radically (including, yes, racially) different from all the ones who came before that Americans seem comfortable with – or at least have accepted the fact of – some distance between who they are, who the president is, and that for which the country stands. It is most certainly a function of having seen so many lives lost, but the American people are comfortable with inaction. Barack Obama’s foreign policy is less of a doctrine than a stance – guarded but cautious, careful but alert … just like us.

 

By: Ana Marie Cox, The Guardian, June 16, 2014

June 19, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Iraq, National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obama Reflects On A Sacred Rule”: We Don’t Leave Our Men Or Women In Uniform Behind

The political discourse over the last few days has been rather surreal. It seemed hard to imagine that the release of an American prisoner of war would spark a fierce partisan backlash, but the announcement that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been freed from his Taliban captors in Afghanistan seems to have done exactly that, with much of the right condemning the move.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz warned his allies, “Attacking the actions that led to the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a surefire way to lose in 2014,” but so far, conservatives have ignored the suggestion.

President Obama, in Europe this week, spoke to reporters while in Poland this morning and responded to the burgeoning controversy.

“The United States has always had a pretty sacred rule and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind,” he said. “We have consulted with Congress for quite some time about the possibility that we might need to execute a prisoner exchange to recover Sgt. Bergdahl.” […]

“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought it was detrimental to our national security,” he said. “We will be in a position to go after them if they are engaging in activity that threatens our defenses.”

There have been multiple reports that Bergdahl may have been a deserter at the time of his capture. And though we don’t yet have all of the details about what transpired, the president made clear that some of those details aren’t quite relevant to the underlying principle.

“Let me just make a simple point here: regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that,” Obama said.

I’m not sure why so many on the right find this hard to understand.

The United States prioritizes the return of American POWs. It’s just what we do. What if the troops were captured due to their own negligence? It doesn’t matter. What if they were taken prisoner as a result of incompetence? It doesn’t matter. What if they gave up their post? It doesn’t matter.

Even by the standards of our contemporary discourse, the past few days have been hard to believe. U.S. officials secured the release of an American prisoner of war and for much of the right, the first instinct was to condemn the president. The second instinct was to condemn the prisoner. And as yesterday unfolded, the third instinct was to go after the prisoner’s dad.

I don’t expect much from the far-right, but this is surprising.

Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, said in a joint statement that the prisoner swap that led to Bergdahl’s release “may have” adverse consequences and could put U.S. forces “at even greater risk.”

It’s difficult to say with certainty whether their warnings have merit. But Glenn Thrush asked a good question on Twitter overnight: what endangered the U.S. homeland more: a prisoner swap or invading Muslim country based on fake intelligence resulting in tens of thousands of deaths?

Predicting what U.S. foreign policies “may have” adverse consequences and/or could put U.S. forces “at even greater risk” is tricky, but if we’re making a list, I can think of a few things that would come above “prisoner swaps.”

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, June 3, 2014

June 4, 2014 Posted by | POW's, U. S. Military | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Wrong Way To Measure Strength”: You Don’t Measure Security By Sheer Numbers Of Troops

The ancient Greek military historian Thucydides famously noted that in war, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Today, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, concurs.

“It’s a dangerous world, and we’re making it more so by cutting defense,” said McKeon, responding to the president’s defense budget. “We weaken ourselves, and that is how you get into wars. You don’t get into wars if you’re strong.”

The idea that “weak” countries must fight to uphold their status might seem self-evident. However, while McKeon’s logic might have made sense in the Bronze Age, it makes little sense in the modern age.

First, warfare has changed since Thucydides’ day, where the relationship between military strength and a nation’s survival was clearer. The larger your population, the more men you had under arms, the stronger you were. Today’s wars are different, mostly because interstate conflict has declined drastically over the last 50 years. Even the smallest, weakest countries don’t worry about fighting for survival anymore.

For instance, of the five countries with the lowest military expenditures in the world – Costa Rica, Panama, the Seychelles, Liberia and Belize – only one has fought a war against another country in the past 25 years, and that was Panama, which the U.S. invaded in 1989. Perhaps McKeon was right about weakness, albeit not in the way he intended.

By contrast, the superpower with the highest military expenditure in the world – the United States – has fought six major armed conflicts in the last 25 years, and that doesn’t even include “military operations other than war.” Of the four other strongest military powers globally – China, Russia, the U.K., and Japan – only China and Japan have not fought wars in the last quarter century, largely because they lacked force projection capabilities.

Modern history not only disproves the idea that “strong” countries do not fight wars, but also suggests a dated definition of strength. Strong nations fight more conflicts because they have more global interests to protect and also because they can protect them in the first place. Russia’s recent incursion into Ukraine exemplifies this trend.

Today, hard power is based on the overall capability to project force beyond national borders; the states that are most likely to fight wars are the ones that can do so. In this regard, the U.S. is still without peer, and the military cuts McKeon lambasts don’t diminish that capability. With 11 supercarriers and nearly 600 military installations overseas, the U.S. is well-positioned to respond to global crises.

“With these cuts, we are talking about the Marines are planning on going down to 21 infantry battalions. Twenty are called for in the plan to defend Korea. That leaves one battalion to handle Russia, Iran, Syria, Egypt,” McKeon argued. The U.S. would not “handle” crises with any of these countries by deploying Marine battalions, however. Capability trumps capacity; in this regard, air-, sea- and logistical power are more important. Cutting troop numbers doesn’t make us weaker, but cutting our force projection capabilities does. Thankfully, the president’s budget does not significantly reduce those capabilities.

McKeon’s logic, therefore, is the exact reverse of what the last several decades have proven. Strong states fight wars more often because they have so much more to lose.

 

By: Faris Alikan, National Security Fellow at Third Way; U. S. News and World Report, March 6, 2014

 

March 7, 2014 Posted by | Defense Budget, Foreign Policy | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Coherent”: The Right Works Backwards To Make Their Thesis Of Putin Look More Impressive

The Hill published a curious piece this morning with a provocative headline, “Putin gets his revenge on Obama.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s criticism of the United States in the op-ed pages of Thursday’s New York Times was a revenge of sorts on President Obama. […]

The op-ed was the latest salvo in an open feud between Obama and Putin — one which the Russian appeared this week to take an upper hand when a last-second diplomatic proposal from Russia led Obama to ask Congress to call off votes authorizing strikes against Syria.

I’ll concede I’m not an expert in the nuances of international diplomacy, but the notion that the Russian president has exacted “revenge” on President Obama seems odd to me.

Let’s take stock of what happened this week: (1) the United States threatened Syria, a Russian ally, over its use of chemical weapons; (2) Syria then vowed to give up its chemical weapons; and (3) Russia has committed itself to the diplomatic process the United States wants, which is intended to guarantee the success of the Syrian disarmament plan.

So, Obama, at least for now, ended up with what he wanted, which was then followed with more of what he wanted. If this is Putin exacting revenge, I suspect the White House doesn’t mind.

Indeed, the op-ed certainly caused a stir, but let’s not exaggerate its significance. “Putin gets his revenge on Obama” sounds awfully dramatic, but I don’t imagine President Obama was reading the NYT with breakfast yesterday, telling those around him, “Putin wrote a newspaper piece? And it chides the United States? I’ve been foiled by my strategic better! Curses!”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill, “It’s a sorry state when we have to take our leadership from Mr. Putin.” What does this even mean? The U.S. told Russia we intend to do something about the threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons; Russia is now working on helping eliminate that threat. In what way does the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee sees Americans taking our leadership from Putin?

Peggy Noonan wrote of Putin’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning, “He twisted the knife and gloated, which was an odd and self-indulgent thing to do when he was winning.”

The possibility that the Obama White House is actually achieving its strategic goals with these developments is apparently unimportant — Noonan and other Republicans are too overwhelmed by the belief that Putin got his revenge by writing an unpersuasive and inconsequential op-ed in a newspaper.

We’ve talked a couple of times this week about the right’s increasingly creepy affections for Putin, a phenomenon that only seems to be getting worse. This morning, though, I’m beginning to see the elements of a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts — the right decided in advance that Obama’s rival must be impressive because he’s Obama rival, so they work backwards to make their thesis look more impressive.

Just over the last few days, for example, Tucker Carlson heralded Putin for “riding to President Obama’s rescue” while Russia “humiliates the United States.” Charles Krauthammer added that it’s Putin’s government that’s “playing chess here with a set of rank amateurs.”

So, every development is then filtered through the conservative prism that says Putin is President Tough Guy Leadership. The Russian gently rebuked the U.S. in an op-ed? Then conservatives must be right about Putin’s impressiveness!

Again, this might be more persuasive if Obama weren’t getting exactly what he wants right now.

 

By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 13, 2013

September 15, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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