The idea that the U.S. can ‘do no harm’ depends on the fiction that it can be ‘neutral’ in foreign conflicts

Shadi Hamid writes: The eight years of the Obama presidency have offered us a natural experiment of sorts. Not all U.S. presidents are similar on foreign policy, and not all (or any) U.S. presidents are quite like Barack Obama. After two terms of George W. Bush’s aggressive militarism, we have had the opportunity to watch whether attitudes toward the U.S. — and U.S. military force — would change, if circumstances changed. President Obama shared at least some of the assumptions of both the hard Left and foreign-policy realists, that the use of direct U.S. military force abroad, even with the best of intentions, often does more harm then good. Better, then, to “do no harm.”

This has been Barack Obama’s position on the Syrian Civil War, the key foreign-policy debate of our time. The president’s discomfort with military action against the Syrian regime seems deep and instinctual and oblivious to changing facts on the ground. When the debate over intervention began, around 5,000 Syrians had been killed. Now it’s close to 500,000. Yet, Obama’s basic orientation toward the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has remained unchanged. This suggests that Obama, like many others who oppose U.S. intervention against Assad, is doing so on “principled” or, to put it differently, ideological grounds.

Despite President Obama’s very conscious desire to limit America’s role in the Middle East and to minimize the extent to which U.S. military assets are deployed in the region, there is little evidence that the views of the hard Left and other critics of American power have changed as a result. (Yes, the U.S. military is arguably involved in more countries now than when the Obama administration took office, but — compared to Iraq and Afghanistan before him — Obama’s footprint has been decidedly limited, with a reliance on drone strikes and special-operations forces.) As for those who actually live in the Middle East, a less militaristic America has done little to temper anti-Americanism. In the three countries — Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon — for which Pew has survey data for both Bush’s last year and either 2014 or 2015, favorability toward the U.S. is significantly worse under Obama today than it was in 2008. Why exactly is up for debate, but we can at the very least say that a drastic drawdown of U.S. military personnel — precisely the policy pushed for by Democrats in the wake of Iraq’s failure — does not seem to have bought America much goodwill.

Despite the fact that Assad and Russia are responsible for indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, many leftists have viewed even the mere mention of the U.S. doing anything in response as “warmongering.” We have had the unfortunate situation of someone as (formerly) well-respected as Jeffrey Sachs arguing that the U.S. should provide “air cover and logistical support” to Bashar al-Assad. We have had Wikileaks’ attacks on the White Helmets, who have risked — and, for at least 140, lost — their lives in the worst conditions to save Syrian lives from the rubble of Syrian and Russian bombardment. Of course, it is not an absurd position to be skeptical of any proposed American escalation against Assad, and many reasonable people across the political spectrum have made that case. But it is something else entirely to apply such skepticism selectively to the U.S. and not to others, especially when the others in question deliberately target civilians as a matter of policy. It can be a slippery slope. While no one would accuse Obama of liking Putin, coordinating with and enabling Russia in Syria is effectively U.S. policy. As the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen noted in February, well before the current disaster in Aleppo: “The troubling thing is that the Putin policy on Syria has become hard to distinguish from the Obama policy.”

The Left has always had a utopian bent, believing that life, not just for Americans, but for millions abroad, can be made better through human agency (rather than, say, simply hoping that the market will self-correct). The problem, though, is that the better, more just world that so many hope for is simply impossible without the use of American military force. At first blush, such a claim might seem self-evidently absurd. Haven’t we all seen what happened in Iraq? The 2003 Iraq invasion was one of the worst strategic blunders in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Yet, it’s not clear what exactly this has to do with the Syrian conflict, which is almost the inverse of the Iraq war. In Iraq, civil war happened after the U.S. invasion. In Syria, civil war broke out in the absence of U.S. intervention. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s Afghanistan war strategy: Do ‘just enough to lose slowly’

The Washington Post reports from Camp Shorab: Earlier this month, a small district center just south of this desolate U.S. base came under attack from Taliban militants who threatened to overrun the local police. Frantic calls arrived from Afghan officials: They needed air support.

In a U.S. command center, a steel hut of plywood walls and a dozen video monitors piping in drone feeds and satellite imagery, soldiers began directing aircraft to the area. Redhanded 53, the call sign for a gun-metal-gray twin-engine propeller plane loaded with sensors, arrived overhead just in time to watch a truck loaded with explosives slam into the main police station.

Within an hour, the Americans had marshaled an armed Predator drone in the skies over the battle in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. But the commanding officer, Col. D.A. Sims, and his troops were unable to determine whether the men with guns on the ground were Taliban or Afghan soldiers. So Sims directed the Predator to fire one of its two hellfire missiles into an adjacent field — a $70,000 dollar warning shot just to let the militants know that the Americans had arrived.

The Oct. 3 battle is a microcosm of what is happening across Afghanistan: Taliban fighters that show enormous resilience despite being on the wrong side of a 15-year, $800 billion war; an Afghan army that still struggles with leadership, equipment, tactics and, in some units, an unwillingness to fight; and the world’s most sophisticated military reduced at times to pounding fields with its feared armaments.

The future of the U.S. role in Afghanistan after a decade and a half of war has received little attention in the presidential campaign and debates. But the next administration will be bequeathed a strategy that is doing “just enough to lose slowly,” said Douglas Ollivant, a senior national-security-studies fellow at the New America Foundation. [Continue reading…]


In Somalia, U.S. escalates a shadow war

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia over the past year, using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.

Hundreds of American troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993.

The Somalia campaign, as it is described by American and African officials and international monitors of the Somali conflict, is partly designed to avoid repeating that debacle, which led to the deaths of 18 American soldiers. But it carries enormous risks — including more American casualties, botched airstrikes that kill civilians and the potential for the United States to be drawn even more deeply into a troubled country that so far has stymied all efforts to fix it.

The Somalia campaign is a blueprint for warfare that President Obama has embraced and will pass along to his successor. It is a model the United States now employs across the Middle East and North Africa — from Syria to Libya — despite the president’s stated aversion to American “boots on the ground” in the world’s war zones. This year alone, the United States has carried out airstrikes in seven countries and conducted Special Operations missions in many more. [Continue reading…]


The West’s decline is of its own making

Judy Dempsey writes: A park close to the European Parliament in Brussels has been given a face-lift, if that is the right term. Apart from being spruced up, the area now contains new sculptures in the form of twelve ostriches. And yes, the ostriches have their heads stuck in the sand. If Europe as well as the United States weren’t suffering such a malaise as they are today, the symbolism of these birds wouldn’t matter.

But three recent events only confirm how the West continues to duck fundamental issues in ways that will leave it weaker and increasingly unable to project itself politically, socially, and economically.

The first event was the decision by the United States to cut off talks with Russia on trying to end the war in Syria. John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, who was in Brussels on October 4, tried to defend his country’s role in Syria. In a speech hosted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, he decried Russia’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s relentless bombing of civilian targets, and the way Syrian government forces were using barrel bombs and chlorine gas against their opponents.

What Kerry omitted, hardly surprisingly, was how the United States in particular had crossed its own so-called redlines when it came to Syria. U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to intervene, despite saying in August 2012 that any use of chemical weapons would be a redline the United States would not tolerate, gave Russia and other players a free hand to play out their cynical geostrategic interests in that wretched country. [Continue reading…]


If he wanted to, Obama could end the slaughter in Yemen

The Associated Press reports: More than 1,000 mourners were packed into the funeral hall, including some of the most powerful figures in Yemen’s rebel movement. Ali al-Akwa, who was just about to start reciting the Quran, heard warplanes overhead — but that wasn’t strange for wartime Sanaa. Surely a funeral would be safe, he thought.

Moments later, a huge explosion struck, tearing bodies apart. The ceiling collapsed, walls fell in and a fire erupted. As people scrambled frantically to get out, a second missile struck, killing more of them.

Nearly 140 people were killed and more than 600 wounded in Saturday’s airstrike — one of the deadliest since Saudi Arabia and its allies began an air campaign in Yemen in March 2015. The coalition is trying to uproot the Shiite Houthi rebels who took over the capital and much of northern Yemen from the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The coalition seems to have been hoping to take out a significant part of the Houthis’ military leadership and its allies, who were expected at the funeral. Instead, the attack is likely to deepen the stalemate in a war that has already pushed the impoverished country into collapse.

The bloodshed has eclipsed new U.N. efforts to secure even a brief cease-fire. Amid popular anger, the coalition has lost potential tribal allies. In an attempt to expand the war, the Houthis have retaliated by firing rockets into neighboring Saudi Arabia and at U.S. warships.

The only hope for progress toward a resolution, many Yemenis say, is if the strike prompts Saudi Arabia’s top ally, the United States, and other Western nations to halt arms sales, pressure Riyadh to ease the war and move toward negotiations. [Continue reading…]

Akbar Shahid Ahmed writes: In the public consciousness, this brutal conflict blurs into the other bloody wars across the Middle East, each of them marked by its own complicated mix of players, incentives and grievances that make peace unlikely.

But Yemen is different. Here, Obama could single-handedly cause a major drop in the bloodshed, experts say. He simply doesn’t seem to want to do it.

Per Obama’s orders, planes belonging to the Saudis and others involved in their coalition currently receive aerial refueling from American planes, a defense official confirmed to The Huffington Post this week. U.S. military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia offer intelligence and logistical support to the coalition, but don’t decide where it bombs, the official said. And the Obama administration has greenlit three new transfers of weapons ― ammunition, bombs, air-to-ground missiles and tanks ― to the kingdom to replenish stocks used in Yemen, according to arms trade expert William Hartung.

Obama could stop all of that at any time. [Continue reading…]

In September, The Atlantic reported: Obama has said little about the war in Yemen. With mere months left in his presidency, there is scarce indication that he will. Increasingly skeptical of America’s ability to shape events on the ground in the Middle East, Obama sees little incentive to overturn the status quo, even if that means supporting the apparently reckless military forays of a [Saudi] government he disdains.

A U.S. official who briefs the White House on regional national security matters summed up the Obama administration’s prevailing attitude. Yemen was already a “complete shit show” before the war, he argued, echoing Obama’s use of a phrase he is said to use privately to describe Libya. The Houthis are a nasty militia who deserve no favors and Yemen would be a “shit show” whatever the United States does. So why further degrade a sometimes-unpleasant, but necessary relationship with the Saudis to produce the same end result?

After a joint U.S.-Russian press conference held in Geneva to announce the abortive Syria ceasefire this month, journalists were served vodka from the Russians and pizza courtesy of the Americans. Yemen wasn’t even worth the takeout order, al-Muslimi said: “There is no pizza or vodka when it comes to Yemen. Only cluster bombs and arms deals.” [Continue reading…]


Barack Obama’s wrong: The new Cold War’s only just begun

Michael Weiss writes: In one of the better studies of Putinology to appear in the last year, Mikhail Zygar’s All the Kremlin’s Men does much to upend the conventional wisdom about U.S.-Russian relations, particularly as offered by the American architects of those relations over the past eight years.

“Vladimir Putin,” Zygar writes, “did not like the new American president from the start. For him, Barack Obama was both soft and intractable… Paradoxically, Obama, the most idealistic and peace-loving U.S. president in living memory, became a symbol of war in Russia, a target for Russian state propaganda and racist jokes, and a hate figure for millions of patriotic Russians. He was caricatured as an ill-fated enemy doomed to be defeated by Vladimir Putin.”

Surveying some much-buried news over the last seven days, one begins to appreciate the weight of this grim appraisal. [Continue reading…]


Why Yemen conflict has become another Syria

Simon Tisdall writes: The brazen attempt by Houthi rebels to sink a US warship patrolling off Yemen marks a potentially significant escalation of a conflict that has been alternately fuelled and ignored by the western powers. The attack by the Houthis, whose main backer is Iran, coincides with an unprecedented ballistic missile strike 325 miles inside Saudi territory and suggests a spreading, region-wide conflagration could be nearer at hand than previously thought.

Insurrection and revolt have been endemic in Yemen since the early part of this century. But the conflict intensified in March last year when Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival, launched a large-scale intervention, backed by a coalition of Arab states.

Since then an estimated 10,000 Yemenis have died and many more have been injured, displaced or have faced famine conditions. The US and Britain back the Saudi coalition and have provided limited practical support such as intelligence-sharing and training, but have eschewed direct involvement in Yemen. The exception is the CIA’s repeated drone strikes, including those against alleged Islamic State and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula terrorists.

As in Syria, the Obama administration has favoured a hands-off approach, preferring to act through proxies rather than engage directly. This diffidence stems from Barack Obama’s fear of the US being sucked into more Middle East wars. It is also the byproduct of his controversial attempt to mend fences with Iran through last year’s landmark nuclear deal. [Continue reading…]


Testing Obama’s transparency pledge, groups send list of drone strikes to investigate

The Intercept reports: A coalition of human rights groups is calling on the Obama administration to make good on an executive order issued this summer that requires the United States to investigate when civilians are harmed in lethal operations abroad, including drone strikes.

In a letter sent to the White House on Thursday, the groups press for investigations into several specific attacks that occurred on the president’s watch. The letter calls for public acknowledgement as well as “prompt, thorough, effective, independent, impartial and transparent investigations” into 10 incidents over the last seven years. A dozen groups signed on, including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

The letter also calls for the methodology of those investigations to be made public, to include “only those redactions necessary to protect information that is properly classified” and to offer clear explanations for any discrepancies that might arise between the government’s conclusions and those reached by outside parties, including NGOs and journalists.

The executive order that Obama signed requires the government to investigate allegations of civilian casualties caused by U.S. operations, then take responsibility when they occur, and provide compensation to the family members of victims. [Continue reading…]


Obama has no plan to save Aleppo from Putin and Assad

The Daily Beast reports: U.S. officials are scrambling to find ways to blunt Russian and regime aggression in Syria. But none of the limited set of options currently being crafted would stop the eastern part of the country’s largest city, Aleppo, from falling into the hands of the Bashar al-Assad regime and its Russian allies, two U.S. officials told the Daily Beast.

Rather, lower level American officials are proposing to arm U.S.-backed rebels with more powerful, longer range weapons and surface-to-air weapons to potentially thwart Russian and regime airstrikes. The hope is that such weaponry would be enough for opposition groups to retain their control in other parts of Syria, like the suburbs of Damascus.

The surface-to-air missiles would not include shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — so-called “MANPADS,” short for “Man Portable Air Defense Systems,” — but rather less mobile systems that would be less likely to end up in the wrong hands, the officials said.

“Those kind of plans are on the table,” one of the U.S. officials explained to The Daily Beast.

But even those plans would be an ambitious sell to the White House, the officials concede, given that the administration has so far rejected direct military intervention in eastern Aleppo. None of those potential proposed responses would be carried out in time to stop the fall of eastern Aleppo into regime hands, which officials have told The Daily Beast is imminent. [Continue reading…]


Obama views Aleppo’s destruction as preferable to risky U.S. intervention

Josh Rogin writes: U.S. military strikes against the Assad regime will be back on the table Wednesday at the White House, when top national security officials in the Obama administration are set to discuss options for the way forward in Syria. But there’s little prospect President Obama will ultimately approve them.

Inside the national security agencies, meetings have been going on for weeks to consider new options to recommend to the president to address the ongoing crisis in Aleppo, where Syrian and Russian aircraft continue to perpetrate the deadliest bombing campaign the city has seen since the five-year-old civil war began. A meeting of the Principals Committee, which includes Cabinet-level officials, is scheduled for Wednesday. A meeting of the National Security Council, which could include the president, could come as early as this weekend.

Last Wednesday, at a Deputies Committee meeting at the White House, officials from the State Department, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff discussed limited military strikes against the regime as a means of forcing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to pay a cost for his violations of the cease-fire, disrupt his ability to continue committing war crimes against civilians in Aleppo, and raise the pressure on the regime to come back to the negotiating table in a serious way. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia on Tuesday for pointedly ignoring the Syrian government’s use of chlorine gas and barrel bombs against its own citizens, and he left little hope for an early resumption of talks with Russia about a cease-fire.

Speaking here before the opening of a conference on Afghanistan organized by the European Union, Mr. Kerry said that the United States would continue efforts to end the fighting in Syria through the United Nations, but that Washington had little hope of persuading Russia to give up its unqualified support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

The Obama administration announced on Monday that it was suspending bilateral talks with Russia on a cease-fire. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s failed ‘Asian pivot’ leaves China ascendant

Simon Tisdall writes: Tsai Ing-wen is new to the job and the strain is beginning to show. Elected president of Taiwan in a landslide victory, she took office in May, buoyed by high approval ratings. Yet in a few short months, Tsai’s popularity has plunged by 25%. The reason may be summed up in one word: China. Suspicious that Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party, which also won control of parliament, harbours a pro-independence agenda, Beijing suspended official and back-channel talks with its “renegade province” and shut down an emergency hotline.

More seriously, for many Taiwanese workers, China also curbed the lucrative tourist trade, which brought millions of mainland visitors to the island during the accommodating presidency of Tsai’s predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Cross-strait investment and business have also been hit.

Tsai faces contradictory pressures. The public wants the benefit of closer economic ties with China but Beijing’s intentions are rightly distrusted by a population that increasingly identifies itself as Taiwanese, not Chinese. Given President Xi Jinping’s ominous warnings that reunification cannot be delayed indefinitely, China’s military build-up and hawkish suggestions that Beijing may resort to force, Taiwanese ambivalence is wholly understandable.

This dilemma – how to work constructively with a powerful, assertive China without compromising or surrendering national interests – grows steadily more acute. It is shared by states across the east and southeast Asian region. From Indonesia and the Philippines to Vietnam, Japan, Seoul, Malaysia and Singapore, the quandary is the same. But the answers proffered by national leaders are different and sometimes sharply at odds. [Continue reading…]


Obama’s failed legacy on child soldiers

Josh Rogin writes: President Obama will leave office having failed to use the tools at his disposal to make significant progress on getting child soldiers off the battlefield. That’s the consensus among human rights groups who point to the fact that for six consecutive years, the Obama administration has subverted U.S. law requiring the president to sanction foreign governments that force children to fight.

As early as this week, the administration will announce for the final time a list of waivers and exemptions to the Child Soldiers Protection Act, a law passed in 2008 that forbids the United States from giving military aid to any foreign government that systematically uses children in its armed forces. According to officials involved in the process, the president will either fully or partially waive sanctions for every abuser country that receives U.S. military assistance.

It’s a familiar pattern the president has followed each year since 2010, the first year he was required to sanction abuser countries under the law. The Obama administration has given more than $1.2 billion in military assistance and arms to governments that use child soldiers since the law was enacted and withheld only $61 million, according to the Stimson Center. The president’s final decision on waiving sanctions under the law is due Oct. 1. [Continue reading…]