Friday, May 02, 2014

Hillary Clinton sizes up lame-duck Obama By Peter Lee

Hillary Clinton sizes up lame-duck Obama
By Peter Lee

Uh-oh. Looks like things are getting somewhat Ides-of-Marchy within the Obama administration, and the coterie of Hillary Clinton supporters and enthusiasts pushing the president to set military sights on hotspots far from Washington have something to do with it.

From the LA Times:
Those who want him to act more forcefully include not only Republicans but also liberal internationalists and some members of his staff. [emphasis added] [1]
I should say I'm pretty much on board with President Obama's hesitations about using military force, which I would gloss as,

"Don't use stupid actions to follow up on stupid policies."

The reference to dissent within the administration concerning his restraint on military matters is simply another sign that the vaunted Obama message discipline is crumbling, and everybody's waitin' on Hillary. The barrage of criticism of his foreign policy casts a new and favorable light on the president and his role in the generally grisly parade of foreign policy cockups that have characterized his two administrations. Particularly, it has highlighted the dissatisfaction of the neo-liberal and neo-con interventionists with President Obama's chariness in committing military power to advance their cherished initiatives. And that's a good thing.

Remarkably, given the considerable energy and intellectual power exhibited in America's non-stop overseas jiggery-pokery, US geopolitical strategy has abounded in stupid policies.

That's no accident. I think it has to do with the mindset of the interventionist caucus in the US foreign policy government and private sector apparatus, which has been dragging or guiding the US government into wars (and enhancing its own power, profits, and influence) for generations. The gold standard for ham-fisted intervention is still Iraq War II, but it seems there is an inexhaustible supply of wonks, pundits, advocates, and agitators within the Beltway ready to be "heroes in error" for the next US crusade.

Case in point: the anti-Russian enthusiasts in the State Department (here's lookin' at you, Victoria Nuland) overreached with the Kiev coup, now Obama won't back them up by threatening to employ the US military to buck up the government and deter Russia.

My reactions: 1. Boo-hoo. 2. Cry me a river. 3. Thank God.

Pretty much the same thing with Syria.

The United States contributed significantly to the catastrophe by listening to the regime-changers and backing the insurgents instead of considering some kind of accommodation with Assad. Death toll 150,000 and counting. Thank God Obama decided not to blow up the Middle East by bombing Syria and/or sending in troops in an attempt to rescue the faltering and increasingly radical and unpopular insurgency.

As for the pivot to Asia, Obama's stance is pretty problematic.

The pivot (by which I mean the US leading the China-containment effort, instead of simply participating in it) is premised on the idea that US military power is the trump card and the pivot rests on the foundation of a credible US deterrent; namely, a deterrent that the US will promptly deploy regardless of the geopolitical and economic consequences of messing with the PRC, a rather important regional power in a rather important region.

I've argued that China containment is the wrong policy for Asia (see Asia pivot comes back to bite the US, Asia Times Online, February 25, 2014) and the US could do better for itself by playing the honest broker in a bilaterally-tilted engagement strategy instead of taking up the role of backup to Japan and the Philippines in an anti-PRC united front and basing US credibility on the idea that we'll start World War III over a cluster of worthless islands.

Unfortunately for President Obama he jumped into the pivot bed that Hillary Clinton and the neo-liberal interventionists prepared for him, and he needs to declare that he will wield US military power precipitously, unfairly, and irrationally (like Nixon with his madman doctrine) if he wants to maintain his credibility as Pivoteer-in-Chief.

A few points about interventionism in the Age of Obama:
Military first ... I think initial failure in foreign affairs strategy in the political and diplomatic sphere, and the subsequent need for escalation into the military realm in order to paper over US failure and preserve credibility is a feature, not a bug, for the US interventionist foreign policy crowd. If you want to be generous, you could say that obvious flaws and risks of foreign policy adventurism - like installing a demonstrably incapable, fascist-larded government in Kiev over the strong and understandable objections of Russia and, for that matter, a healthy percentage of the population in Ukraine's eastern demographic and economic heartland - are simply ignored because the hardliners assume that some not clearly defined but invincible combination of money, power, sanctions, coercive diplomacy and, indispensably, utter callousness to the sufferings of the subject population, aka "Strategic Patience", will be sufficient to overcome the defects of even the most irresponsible policy.

I am not inclined to be generous. Syria and Ukraine look like classic examples of "Let's get the US government on the hook for a confrontational policy. The escalation will take care of itself." In other words, the policies were designed to paint President Obama into a corner and commit US prestige to fundamentally unviable policies that can only be rescued by escalating to the military solution that the designers of the policy wanted in the first place.

... and Obama knows this. He got burned on Afghanistan, where the surge turned a disaster that he could have turned the page on into an incubus that sucked life out of his administration for the whole eight years. He also got burned on Libya, a classic "camel's nose into the tent" or, to be less Orientalist, the classic "no fly zone turns into unrestricted air warfare" operation that transformed Libya into a failed state. The Iran rapprochement, if - and it's still a big if - it succeeds, has been conducted in defiance of the interventionists and will probably be the only part of President Obama's legacy that he can and will genuinely cherish.

Self-serving advocates ... It's kind of nice that the US populace seems rather down on the "tough choices" liberal/neo-con interventionist Beltway gang. It's not just the foreigners upon whom we inflict our policies that hate us. Presumably, this gives President Obama some aid and comfort when he decides to resist the advice of the self-serving foreign policy advocates who have embroiled his administration in a series of miserable confrontations from Afghanistan to Libya to Syria to Ukraine and endure the barrage of criticism their allies and acolytes unleash on the op-ed pages and on the cable networks.

... at war inside the Beltway. Unfortunately, political wars, especially foreign policy debates, are fought inside the Beltway, not in the nationwide democratic arena. To paraphrase Napoleon on the Pope, "How many defense contractors, bespoke lobbyists, doctrinaire think tankers, and op-ed writers do the American public have?" Resisting the interventionists, and their desire to maximize their influence and power and validate their their well-paid but not particularly successful existence, and taking across the spectrum political and diplomatic heat from domestic and foreign interests eager to get the US on the hook militarily to advance their agendas, is not going to score President Obama many useful political points.

Realization of this situation, I believe, has reflected itself in the President's morally questionable decision to let the interventionists' regime change shenanigans play out in places like Syria and Ukraine, while withholding the final military consummation they most desperately crave.

From shooting the lame-duck ... Sadly, I think the recent spate of articles questioning President Obama's warmongering cred are simply another sign that he's a lame duck. Much of the torrent of lame-duck dumping is misguided, cynical, or in the service of Hillary Clinton. Criticism of Obama is typified by the Ian Bremmer tweet: "Bush: a leader that didn't think; Obama: a thinker that doesn't lead". The actual distinction is that President Obama was not "led", led by the foreign policy apparatchiks of the same ilk that "led" George W Bush around by the nose. It is interesting, to say the least, that so many foreign policy types, for various reasons ranging, I imagine, from institutional self-interest to advocacy to carrying Hillary Clinton's water, are following the anti-Obama script.

... to dropping bombs. I'm afraid that, unlike President Obama, if she becomes president after winning the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton would love to play the interventionist game because of the authority, power, and political initiative pursuing craptacular but violent foreign policy initiatives give to the White House. In fact, given the Clintonian instinct for outflanking their adversaries by adopting even more extreme forms of their positions, things could get a lot worse.

Hillary, I think, will come into office eager to bomb something in order to re-establish US military cred and get on the (politically) right side of the liberal interventionists and even the neo-cons.

In other words, instead of questioning and modifying or even abandoning crappy policies (after all, the pivot is her baby), she will escalate, shifting the debate to the military sphere in which US military power is pre-eminent for the sake of holding the political initiative inside the Beltway and claiming the geopolitical initiative overseas.

Wonder who the symbolic (presumably helpless and easily demonized) victim will be? What country will be Hillary Clinton's Granada?

1. Obama argues against use of force to solve global conflicts, Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2014.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

(Copyright 2014 Peter Lee)