The New York Times reports: While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.
If the SEALs got Bin Laden, the Obama administration would lift the secrecy and trumpet the accomplishment. But if it turned out that the founder and head of Al Qaeda was not there, some officials thought the SEALs might be able to slip back out, allowing the United States to pretend the raid never happened.
Mr. Preston wrote a memo addressing when the administration had to alert congressional leaders under a statute governing covert actions. Given the circumstances, the lawyers decided that the administration would be legally justified in delaying notification until after the raid. But then they learned that the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, had already briefed several top lawmakers about Abbottabad without White House permission.
The lawyers also grappled with whether it was lawful for the SEAL team to go in intending to kill Bin Laden as its default option. They agreed that it would be legal, in a memo written by Ms. DeRosa, and Mr. Obama later explicitly ordered a kill mission, officials said. [Continue reading…]
I did not think it inevitable that Assad — a computer-savvy individual who knew mass murder could not remain hidden from view in the 21st century — would react to peaceful protest as violently as he did, with no accompanying political outreach. And as Syria began to descend into the hell to which Assad was leading it, I did not realize that the White House would see the problem as essentially a communications challenge: getting Obama on “the right side of history” in terms of his public pronouncements. What the United States would do to try to influence Syria’s direction never enjoyed the same policy priority as what the United States would say.
Frederic C. Hof joined the State Department in 2009, where he advised Special Envoy George Mitchell on the full range of Arab-Israeli peace issues falling under his purview and focusing on Syria-Israel and Israel-Lebanon matters. Weeks before the popular uprising in Syria in 2011, Hof had won Bashir al-Assad’s provisional support for a peace deal with Israel which, if supported by Israel, would have resulted in the return of all Syrian territory lost in 1967.
Assad, told me in late February 2011 that he would sever all anti-Israel relationships with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas and abstain from all behavior posing threats to the State of Israel, provided all land lost by Syria to Israel in the 1967 war — all of it — was returned. My conversation with him was detailed in terms of the relationships to be broken and the behavior to be changed. He did not equivocate. He said he had told the Iranians that the recovery of lost territory — the Golan Heights and pieces of the Jordan River Valley — was a matter of paramount Syrian national interest. He knew the price that would have to be paid to retrieve the real estate. He implied that Iran was OK with it. He said very directly he would pay the price in return for a treaty recovering everything.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was interested. He was not at all eager to return real estate to Syria, but he found the idea of prying Syria out of Iran’s grip fascinating. And the negative implications for Hezbollah of Lebanon following Syria’s peace accord with Israel were not lost on him in the least. Although there were still details to define about the meaning of “all” in the context of the real estate to be returned, Netanyahu, too, knew the price that would ultimately have to be paid to achieve what he wanted. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: The mother of a Saudi protester sentenced to death by beheading and crucifixion has begged Barack Obama to intervene to save her son’s life.
In her first interview with foreign media, Nusra al-Ahmed, the mother of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, whose case has made headlines around the world, described the intended punishment as savage and “backwards in the extreme”.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Reprieve, the US talkshow host Bill Maher and the British prime minister, David Cameron, have all weighed in with calls for clemency to stop Nimr, who was 17 at the time of his arrest, from being beheaded and then crucified. [Continue reading…]
Paul Goble writes: Vladimir Putin views Barack Obama as being in “panicked retreat” because of the latter’s decision to extricate the US from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and believes that it would be foolish not to exploit the possibilities that such a drawdown in American power present, according to Konstantin von Eggert.
But in doing so, the Moscow analyst says, Putin has opened the door to even more problems for himself as the conflict continues not only internationally but at home where most Russians and especially Russia’s predominantly Sunni Muslim community oppose his support of Assad.
In the short term, von Eggert argues, Putin has achieved five goals by his Syrian actions:
First, he has forced Obama to meet with him because, as a result of Syria, Obama “simply could not refuse dialogue with Putin” given the stakes.
Second, Putin has succeeded in reducing the importance of Ukraine for Washington and thus making it less the defining issue of the West’s relations with Moscow.
Third, Putin has “sent an unambiguous signal to the not-very-numerous allies of the Russian regime: ‘if things are going badly for you, we won’t throw you over,’” a message by which the Kremlin leader wants to contrast himself with the behavior of the United States.
Fourth, “participation in the Syrian civil war is giving [Russia] a chance to demonstrate what the latest Russian arms are capable of,” something useful not only to influence others but to attract new orders for Russia’s arms exporters.
And fifth, “Putin has made it clear to the entire world and above all to the United States that the principle of the sovereign right of any regime to do what it finds appropriate on its own territory is for him inviolable.”
Putin’s moves in this regard reflect a fundamental difference between the West and Russia. Western leaders get involved in foreign affairs “by necessity.” Putin in contrast sees foreign actions as “one of the main (if not the chief) component parts of his legitimacy in the eyes of his compatriots.”
Moreover, von Eggert continues, “Obama and his entourage have the dislike of using military force characteristic of Western leftists while Putin considers [the use of such force] as the key element of world politics.” For him, respect is everything because people “‘respect the strong but beat the weak,’” as he has said many times. [Continue reading…]
Seth Masket writes: In the wake of yet another mass shooting, a rather familiar public debate is playing out. Liberals are calling for restrictions on access to weapons. President Obama, in one of the better examples of the inherent weaknesses of the presidency, gave a statement that gun laws are needed but he knows full well that Congress will never pass them and there’s not a damned thing he can do to about it.
Meanwhile, many of those opposed to gun regulations cited the usual issues. For one, they noted, mass shootings are almost invariably perpetrated by the mentally ill, so we should do a better job caring for or monitoring the mentally ill. But as many others have noted, raising this issue is a dodge. Mental illness is a very serious issue in this country, but no more so than it is in others that have far, far fewer gun-related deaths each year. Besides, even if most shootings are done by the mentally ill, that does not mean that most mentally ill people are prone to violence. We could just as accurately note that mass shootings are almost invariably perpetrated by white men, but singling them out as potential criminals is as morally abhorrent as it is impractical.
But another issue frequently raised is that gun culture runs deep in our nation. America, that is, has a fiercely individualistic culture and access to firearms is a part of that, dating back to the nation’s founding and earlier. Gun violence is a deeply complex and intractable issue in the United States that is rooted in region, faith, race, poverty, and family. You can’t just change the laws without changing our hearts and minds first. [Continue reading…]
Bloomberg reports: President Vladimir Putin, determined to strengthen Russia’s only military outpost in the Middle East, is preparing to launch unilateral airstrikes against Islamic State from inside Syria if the U.S. rejects his proposal to join forces, two people familiar with the matter said.
Putin’s preferred course of action, though, is for America and its allies to agree to coordinate their campaign against the terrorist group with Russia, Iran and the Syrian army, which the Obama administration has so far resisted, according to a person close to the Kremlin and an adviser to the Defense Ministry in Moscow.
Russian diplomacy has shifted into overdrive as Putin seeks to avoid the collapse of the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally who’s locked in a 4 1/2 year civil war against opponents including Sunni extremists fighting under the banner of Islamic State. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for talks with Putin this week, followed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Putin’s proposal, which Russia has communicated to the U.S., calls for a “parallel track” of joint military action accompanied by a political transition away from Assad, a key U.S. demand, according to a third person. The initiative will be the centerpiece of Putin’s one-day trip to New York for the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 28, which will include a meeting with President Barack Obama, both the White House and Kremlin said Thursday. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: By any measure, President Obama’s effort to train a Syrian opposition army to fight the Islamic State on the ground has been an abysmal failure. The military acknowledged this week that just four or five American-trained fighters are actually fighting.
But the White House says it is not to blame. The finger, it says, should be pointed not at Mr. Obama but at those who pressed him to attempt training Syrian rebels in the first place — a group that, in addition to congressional Republicans, happened to include former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
At briefings this week after the disclosure of the paltry results, Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, repeatedly noted that Mr. Obama always had been a skeptic of training Syrian rebels. The military was correct in concluding that “this was a more difficult endeavor than we assumed and that we need to make some changes to that program,” Mr. Earnest said. “But I think it’s also time for our critics to ‘fess up in this regard as well. They were wrong.”
In effect, Mr. Obama is arguing that he reluctantly went along with those who said it was the way to combat the Islamic State, but that he never wanted to do it and has now has been vindicated in his original judgment. The I-told-you-so argument, of course, assumes that the idea of training rebels itself was flawed and not that it was started too late and executed ineffectively, as critics maintain. [Continue reading…]
An I-told-you-so argument is also one typically made by someone who impotently stands on the sidelines — someone deprived of a decision-making role, not someone with the title: commander-in-chief.
The region-wide perception that the U.S. role in Syria has been marked by neglect is underlined in one analyst’s conclusion that “we’ve become like part of the furniture.”
It could be a joke of the “a penguin, a rabbi, and a priest walked into a bar” variety, but this one would start, “five Chinese naval vessels operating in the Bering Sea sailed into U.S. territorial waters, coming within 12 miles of the U.S. coast…” And the punch line would be yours to come up with. Certainly, that “event,” which did indeed occur recently (without notification to U.S. authorities), caused a small news flap here, in part because President Obama was then visiting Alaska. Not since German U-boats prowled off the East Coast of the U.S. during World War II had such a thing happened and though American officials reported that the Chinese had done nothing illegal or that failed to comply with international law, it still had a certain shock effect in a country that’s used to its own navy traveling the world’s waters at will.
No one would think to report similarly on U.S. ships transiting global waters of every sort (often with the urge to impress or issue a warning). It’s the norm of our world that the U.S. can travel the waters of its choice, including Chinese territorial ones, without comment or prior notification to anybody, and that it can build strings of bases and garrisons to “contain” China, and determine which waters off China’s coasts are “Chinese” and which are, in effect, American. This is commonplace and so hardly news here.
Any Chinese attempt to challenge this, however symbolically — and those five ships were clearly meant to tweak the maritime nose of the globe’s “sole superpower” — is news indeed. That includes, of course, the giant, grim, militaristic parade the Chinese leadership recently organized in the streets of Beijing, which U.S. news reports left you feeling had taken place, like the brief voyage of those five ships, somewhere in close proximity to U.S. territory. There’s no question that, despite recent economic setbacks, the Chinese still consider themselves the rising power on planet Earth, and are increasingly eager to draw some aggressive boundaries in the Pacific, while challenging a country that is “pivoting” directly into its neighborhood in a very public way. Get used to all this. It’s the beginning of what could prove to be a decades-long militarized contest between two bulked-up powers, each eager enough to be off the coast of the other one (though the only coast China is likely to be off in a serious way for a long time to come is the cyber-coast of America).
Fortunately, TomDispatch has Alfred McCoy, a veteran empire watcher, keeping an eye on all of this. Recently, he wrote a much-noted piece, “The Geopolitics of American Global Decline,” on Chinese attempts to reorganize the “world island” of Eurasia and break the encircling bounds of American power. Today, in what is in essence part two, he turns to the other side of the equation, American power (never to be underestimated), and suggests that, in the imperial sweepstakes that have been the essence of global politics since at least the sixteenth century, the most underestimated figure of our moment may be President Barack Obama. The question McCoy raises: Might Obama’s global policies, much derided here, actually extend the American “century” deep into the twenty-first? Tom Engelhardt
Grandmaster of the Great Game
Obama’s geopolitical strategy for containing China
By Alfred W. McCoy
In ways that have eluded Washington pundits and policymakers, President Barack Obama is deploying a subtle geopolitical strategy that, if successful, might give Washington a fighting chance to extend its global hegemony deep into the twenty-first century. After six years of silent, sometimes secret preparations, the Obama White House has recently unveiled some bold diplomatic initiatives whose sum is nothing less than a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing’s rise. As these moves unfold, Obama is revealing himself as one of those rare grandmasters who appear every generation or two with an ability to go beyond mere foreign policy and play that ruthless global game called geopolitics.
Since he took office in 2009, Obama has faced an unremitting chorus of criticism, left and right, domestic and foreign, dismissing him as hapless, even hopeless. “He’s a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality,” said Venezuela’s leftist president Hugo Chavez, just months after Obama’s inauguration. “I think he has projected a position of weakness and… a lack of leadership,” claimed Republican Senator John McCain in 2012. “After six years,” opined a commentator from the conservative Heritage Foundation last April, “he still displays a troubling misunderstanding of power and the leadership role the United States plays in the international system.” Even former Democratic President Jimmy Carter recently dismissed Obama’s foreign policy achievements as “minimal.” Voicing the views of many Americans, Donald Trump derided his global vision this way: “We have a president who doesn’t have a clue.”
But let’s give credit where it’s due. Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.
Roger Cohen writes: Syria will be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions. For more than four years now, the war has festered. A country has been destroyed, four million Syrians are refugees, Islamic State has moved into the vacuum and President Bashar al-Assad still drops barrel bombs whose shrapnel and chlorine rip women and children to shreds.
For a long time, those who fled waited in the neighborhood. They wanted to go home. They filled camps in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon. When it became clear even to them that “home” no longer existed, nothing could stop them in their desperate flight toward the perceived security of Europe. The refugee crisis is the chronicle of a disaster foretold.
The refugees do not care what “Christian” Europe thinks. They are beyond caring about Europe’s hang-ups or illusions. They want their children to live. In their homeland, more than 200,000 people have been killed. Statistics numb, but less so when you know the dead. This evisceration of a state is a consequence of many things, among them Western inaction.
American interventionism can have terrible consequences, as the Iraq war has demonstrated. But American non-interventionism can be equally devastating, as Syria illustrates. Not doing something is no less of a decision than doing it. [Continue reading…]
Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi write: One cannot help but feel sorry for President Barack Obama. After twenty months of painstaking negotiations with Iran and America’s coalition partners, hours of hearings on Capitol Hill, countless closed briefings for lawmakers, and scores of articles and opinion pieces about the nuclear deal, few if any have taken note of the President’s real achievement: Yes, he has blocked all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb. But more importantly, he has proven to America that security is better achieved through diplomacy than through militarism.
This may sound obvious and redundant, but the very debate around the nuclear deal reveals how deeply rooted the mindset of militarism is in American political culture, despite its moral bankruptcy and questionable security utility.
In his speech at American University on August 5, Obama made clear that the Iran nuclear deal is a product of him leading America away from the damaging over-militarization of America’s foreign and national security policies following the September 11th attacks. “When I ran for President eight years ago as a candidate who had opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, I said that America didn’t just have to end that war – we had to end the mindset that got us there in the first place,” Obama said. “It was a mindset characterized by a preference for military action over diplomacy.”
But a single foreign-policy achievement, however historic and momentous, a mindset does not change. [Continue reading…]
Bill McKibben writes: President Obama is visiting Alaska this week — a territory changing as rapidly as any on earth thanks to global warming. He’s talking constantly about the danger that climate change poses to the planet (a welcome development given that he managed to go through virtually the entire 2012 election without even mentioning it). And everything he’s saying is right: we are a nation, and a planet, beset by fire, flood, drought. It’s the hottest year in earth’s recorded history. July was the hottest month ever measured on planet earth.
But of course the alarm he’s sounding is muffled by the fact that earlier this year he gave Shell Oil a permit to go drill in the Arctic, potentially opening up a giant new pool of oil.
To most of us this seems like a contradiction. But to the political mind it doesn’t, not really. In fact, here’s how David Balton, the State Department’s diplomat for ocean issues, explained it. On the one hand, he said, the idea that we should stop all Arctic drilling was “held by a lot of Americans. It’s not a radical view.” On the other hand, “there are plenty of people on the other side unhappy that areas of the Arctic, and areas on land, have been closed to hydrocarbon development by the very same president.”
So — and here’s the money quote — “Maybe that means we’re in the right place, given that people on both sides are unhappy with us.”
Maybe. But probably not. Because here’s the thing: Climate change is not like most of the issues politicians deal with, the ones where compromise makes complete sense. [Continue reading…]
Pardiss Kebriaei writes: I feel like there is a heavy weight on my chest – it’s as if I’m breathing through a needle hole. And then I ask myself, “If I write or say something, is anybody going to listen to me? Is it really going to make any difference?”
Zaher Hamdoun is a 36-year-old Yemeni man who has been detained in Guantánamo without charge since he was 22, one of 116 prisoners still detained there six years after Obama promised to close the facility. After I visited him earlier this summer, he followed up with a letter filled with questions.
Will there be a day when I will live like others live? Like a person who has freedom, dignity, a home, a family, a job, a wife and children?
Hamdoun is not among the 52 men approved for transfer from Guantánamo, nor is he in a dwindling group of detainees the government plans to charge. He is in a nebulous middle category of people the Obama administration has determined it is not going to charge but doesn’t know if it is ever going to release. [Continue reading…]
InsideClimate News reports: The Obama administration’s final approval of Royal Dutch Shell’s drilling for oil in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea provoked an angry reaction on Monday from environmentalists who had come to consider President Obama a champion in the fight against climate change.
The decision comes two weeks after the release of the United States’ most aggressive attempt to limit greenhouse gas emissions, known as the Clean Power Plan, and just days after Obama announced he will visit Alaska later this month to highlight the impacts of climate change, which he recently referred to as “one of the greatest challenges we face this century.”
“I’m flummoxed,” said Jamie Henn, co-founder and director of strategy and communications of the green group 350.org. “Arctic drilling is so blatantly out of line with the President’s stated goals that the only possible explanations seem to be that he truly doesn’t understand the issue or that the White House is somehow convinced that the project won’t go forward.” [Continue reading…]
Mashable reports: The warmest year on record so far may have claimed another milestone, and this time it’s a big one.
According to preliminary data from NASA along with information from the Japan Meteorological Administration, July 2015 was the warmest month on record since instrument temperature records began in the late 1800s.
Research using other data, such as tree rings, ice cores and coral formations in the ocean, have shown that the Earth is now the warmest it has been since at least 4,000 years ago. [Continue reading…]
Clive Stafford Smith writes: Recent history demonstrates that if President Barack Obama, arguably the most powerful person on planet Earth, wants to prioritize almost anything – from pardoning 46 convicted drug felons to bombing a foreign country without the consent of Congress – little can stand in his way. Why, then, is Shaker Aamer not home in London with his wife and four children?
Aamer is the last British resident to be detained without trial in Guantánamo Bay and he has never been charged with a single offense. In 2007, he was cleared for release by the Bush Administration; in 2009, six US intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that Shaker should be released. In January 2015, British Prime Minster David Cameron personally raised Shaker’s plight with President Obama, who promised that he would “prioritize” the case.
On Thursday, we came a little closer to understanding the reason that Aamer’s youngest child, Faris – who was born on Valentine’s Day 2002, the day that Aamer was rendered to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay – has never even met his father. The Guardian revealed that “the Pentagon [is] blocking Guantánamo deals to return Shaker Aamer and other cleared detainees.” President Obama, it seems, has personally ordered Aamer’s release, and his subordinates have ignored and thwarted his order. [Continue reading…]
Robin Wright writes: President Obama was in a reflective mood when he met with a group of journalists at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after he delivered a combative speech defending the Iran deal. He is, in private meetings, a congenial stoic, even as he chews Nicorette gum to stay ahead of an old vice. But his frustration—that the bigger message of his foreign policy is being lost in the political furies over Iran—was conspicuous. He made clear that the proposed deal—the most ambitious foreign-policy initiative of his Presidency—is less about Iran than about getting America off its war track; Obama believes that Washington, almost by default, too often unwisely deploys the military as the quickest solution to international crises.
Obama makes many of his pitches in the Roosevelt Room, a modest, windowless chamber with a conference table. When the West Wing was built, in 1902, it was originally the President’s office. A portrait of Franklin Roosevelt is on one wall; a picture of Teddy Roosevelt, as a Rough Rider on horseback, hangs over the fireplace. The most striking piece in the room is the smallest: The 1906 Nobel Prize, the first won by an American and the first by a U.S. President, is encased behind glass. It went to Teddy Roosevelt for mediating an end to the Russo-Japanese war. Only two other Presidents–Woodrow Wilson, for the League of Nations, and Jimmy Carter, after leaving office, for promoting human rights—had won it before Obama was named, just months after his election, more for his spirit than any specific achievement. As he enters the final eighteen months of his Presidency, he seems to want to prove that he deserves it. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: President Obama had a tough message for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or Aipac, the powerful pro-Israel group that is furiously campaigning against the Iran nuclear accord, when he met with two of its leaders at the White House this week. The president accused Aipac of spending millions of dollars in advertising against the deal and spreading false claims about it, people in the meeting recalled.
So Mr. Obama told the Aipac leaders that he intended to hit back hard.
The next day in a speech at American University, Mr. Obama denounced the deal’s opponents as “lobbyists” doling out millions of dollars to trumpet the same hawkish rhetoric that had led the United States into war with Iraq. The president never mentioned Aipac by name, but his target was unmistakable.
The remarks reflected an unusually sharp rupture between a sitting American president and the most potent pro-Israel lobbying group, which was founded in 1951 a few years after the birth of Israel. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: President Obama took on critics of the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers in an aggressive speech on Wednesday, saying they were the same people who created the “drumbeat of war” and played on public fears to push the United States into the Iraq war more than a decade ago.
“Let’s not mince words: The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some sort of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon,” Mr. Obama told about 200 people in a speech at American University. “How can we in good conscience justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives?”
Mr. Obama, opening a new, more overtly political phase of his public campaign for the accord, portrayed the coming vote in Congress to approve or reject the deal as the most consequential foreign policy decision for lawmakers since Congress voted in 2003 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He implored them to “shut out the noise” and back the deal. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: When Susan E. Rice took over as President Obama’s national security adviser two years ago, she was struck by how the White House had grown. Since she had last served on the National Security Council, during the Clinton administration, its staff had nearly quadrupled in size, to about 400 people.
Earlier this year Rice embarked on an effort to trim that number, hoping to make the policymaking process more agile. By mid-July, she said in an interview, the staff had been cut by 6 percent.
But it may be too late to change impressions of an NSC bureaucracy whose size has come to symbolize an overbearing and paranoid White House that insists on controlling even the smallest policy details, often at the expense of timely and effective decisions.
In the Defense Department, where mistrust of the White House has persisted since the administration began, Obama is described as resolute and bold when a quick executive action is needed on operations such as hostage rescues and targeted captures and killings.
However, when the president has wanted to move swiftly on some of his most ambitious policy initiatives — the opening to Cuba and the early Iran nuclear negotiations — he has circumvented the usual practice for decision-making and kept a close hold within the White House.
Two senior NSC officials — deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes and then-Latin American director Ricardo Zuniga — handled secret talks leading to last December’s announced opening to Cuba. The White House did not inform Secretary of State John F. Kerry until the discussions were well underway, and State Department officials in charge of the region found out only as they neared completion.
The success of those policies — along with a climate deal with China, trade agreements and other legacy-building achievements in recent months — have boosted internal morale and for some, at least, validated the way the administration operates.
But on a host of other important issues, the NSC, designed in Harry Truman’s time to coordinate sometimes-conflicting diplomatic and defense views, is still widely seen as the place where policy becomes immobilized by indecision, plodding through months and sometimes years of repetitive White House meetings. [Continue reading…]