Thursday I was getting planning to write an Andy Rooney-ish post about a variety of minor annoyances. Leaving work, though, I felt in a great mood and didn't feel the need; however. there was something bothering me. This news story about the Yazidis and Christians in Iraq put to flight by threats of imminent massacre; I got into a couple of chats about it, as I am wont to do, and suggested that the correct action would be a humanitarian relief effort with an armed escort, and I predicted, based on the dire reports, that it would be announced within hours. I went to bed uneasily that night, my cellphone set to CNN so I could easily check updates during the night.
I would say I had it about 40% right. The timing was spot on; when I woke up and checked at 4 a.m. (10 p.m. Eastern), the announcement from President Obama was there. Of course, that's usually the time when major Presidential announcements are made, late in prime time (East coast). With regard to the humanitarian effort to provide food and supplies to the Yazidis on the mountain, there was no announcement of an armed escort, which would be there to make sure the supplies did not fall into the wrong hands and to help with distribution. Of course, thinking about it, it would not make sense to say Americans were rappelling down to the mountaintop to help; it could bring up unwanted discussions of whether there were technically "combat forces' boots on the ground", as well as providing an extra incentive to the besiegers to attack: the trade value of a captured US military person would be enormous. Neither did the announcement say there was not an armed escort--what would have made most sense was to have a few brave, armed Iraqis go down and help, and word that there is an airlift of people from the mountaintop--very limited--suggests this is probably the case.
The big one that I didn't anticipate was the initiation of airstrikes against the forward elements of ISIS* forces approaching Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region (and new refuge for thousands from fleeing Iraqi minorities). There is a tactical military sense to it; by slowing their thrust at a reasonable distance from the city, the airstrikes can prevent panic in the justifiably nervous civilian populations there. There is also the fact, of which I was unaware or that I had forgotten, that US military advisers were in Irbil with the Kurdish forces--this is always a key factor in the equation determining future US military calculations. Still, this was a bit of a surprise and not entirely welcome. I agree with the statement from Keith Ellison, head of the Progressive Caucus in the US House, who supports Obama's initiatives but warns against "mission creep".
The US woke up yesterday to find we had started military action, and then today found out that our journalists have concluded for us that we are in a new war--as the Times said in one of their least fair headlines, that "Airstrikes May Continue for Months, Obama Says". Actually, he said no such thing, though it is possible to conclude that they could. In his televised speech Friday, which I recommend as a perfect example of the Obama Doctrine--the difference between no wars and stupid wars--he gave the reasons for the orders commencing the airstrikes, clearly and persuasively. In his hasty news appearance on Saturday (with a helicopter waiting in the background to take him on vacation), he was a little less careful. He said efforts to support the Kurdish forces (and Iraqi forces) would continue, and that the priority was on getting the different factions together into a new--and different--government. This is the "long-term project". He didn't say the airstrikes near Erbil wouldn't continue, of course--that would tend to reduce their effectiveness--but one can hope that blunting the assault would buy the time needed. As for the humanitarian effort, it should be over in a few days. Neither enterprise is assured of success.
Public reaction, I would say, puts Obama's position right in the center of the spectrum, from those who want more war now to those who are convinced this is Iraq War 3. It may be, but unlike the first two, there won't be American ground forces in Iraq: I'm pretty sure of that, at least as long as President Obama is around, but that's only 29 more months, and it would be optimistic to think that the country will get all straightened out and peaceful in that amount of time (29 years, maybe) Just a couple points about Iraq: we don't "own it", because we didn't "break it"; it's pretty much been broken for at least 50 years. And we are there under the terms the previous President and current Iraqi Prime Minister left us: if, as much as, and as long as, the government there wants us, and no more--maybe less, in the actual case.
Not Saying She's a Critic, but 'Helpful' Would Be Stretching It
Would-be President Clinton has popped up in recent days with an interview in Atlantic in which she does some careful distancing from Obama's positions, in particular the old debate--now more or less a dead issue--of arming anti-Assad moderates. She doesn't come out and say this would have prevented the emergence of ISIS, but she suggests it might have helped (and again the headline writers jump headlong to the misleading and provocative conclusion--"Hillary Clinton: 'failure' to help Syrian Rebels led to the Rise of ISIS." Well, she did use the word 'failure'.)
Headlines like those make it easy to see why there is some erosion in public support for Obama's foreign policy. Things are quite difficult right now, on a number of fronts, and the support of Obama's political allies is a bit ambivalent. Meanwhile, the partisanship has spilled over into the handling of foreign affairs. Debate over these is something I support--it's better than everyone falling in line once the flag is unfurled--but Obama is given little credit for the successes, and every one of them has a "yes, but..." attached: exiting Iraq and Afghanistan, deposing Qaddhafi, removing the chemical weapons from Syria, agreement on the enriched uranium with Iran, even punishing President Putin's Russia for Ukraine and containing China's naval ambitions.
Clinton says plenty of positive things about Obama in the interview, but does indicate a few points of divergence. The one about Syrian rebels is public knowledge; Obama has the view that it was never a real option to arm them. Her positions in general are a bit more hawkish, and significantly more completely in line with Israel's in the current confrontation in Gaza.
Israel-Palestine has been one singular lack of success so far in the Obama foreign policy. I am certain that he and Secretary Kerry will give it one more go in the last two years of his administration, but Clinton's comments (quite revealing on some of the specifics in the recent negotiations) suggest to me that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is a close observer of Washington, will conclude he can get a better deal in the next administration. And so it (always) goes: somebody there always seems to think there's reason to delay.
Avoiding Cold War II
With regard to the famous Russian Reset, what we got the second time around doesn't seem to run any better, and it's too late to re-boot again, for all concerned. That "increased flexibility" Obama was overheard to promise the Russian Foreign Minister after the 2012 elections (it was taken out of context and referred to strategic arms limitation negotiations only) is long since gone. We have to deal with the Putin we have, not the one we would like to have. I don't think it's impossible to deal with Putin; he's willing to help if it's in his interest (for example, with Syrian chemical weapons and with Iran). The difficulty, as seems always the case with Russian leaders, is fully appreciating their different point of view on the world.
Let me suggest a little counter-factual thought piece which might help. Let's propose that the full depth of the Great Crater of 2008-09 emerged a few months later than it did, and that John McCain won the election, immediately proceeded to irritate the Chinese, who pulled out their money and the recession became a depression. Let's further assume that the deficit became unmanageable, the government defaulted on its debts, and that the Constitution came crashing down. A few states--let's propose a Redneck Republic of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, along with outlying territories Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico--decided to go their own way. Now, how do you think those of the 45 remaining states, who managed to pull it back together somewhat, would feel toward those renegades a couple of decades later? And what if a faction emerged in Arkansas (headed by Chelsea Clinton) that suggested that Arkansans were sick of the Rednecks and might welcome it if the NUSA might take them back? What would President-for-life Marco Rubio's response be?
All quite ludicrous, I suppose, but we have to consider the roller coaster ride Russia has been on, and the unsatisfied nostalgic desire for what now seems to have once been that is present in a large portion of the Russian people. They want Putin to do the things he is doing: in Ukraine now, and before that in Georgia, Abkhazia, and the Caucasus. Like Cubans under our embargo there, the reaction of the world's punitive actions against Russians will only make it easier to bring them more tightly around to the nationalist line. Although there is no new Treaty of Versailles (and maybe there should be some peace terms developed even now, though not humiliating ones), it brings to mind the volatility of Germany between the Wars, which became an eagerness to settle the score.
We have to be careful--and I think President Obama is--to get the right mix between punishing the (clearly) bad behavior of Russia in Ukraine and driving Russia back toward the isolation that historically has been a strong impulse of that country. Worse still would be if we drove Russia into the arms of China and a formal alliance against the West--the Chinese might be receptive, if they felt our policy toward them was strictly one of containment, and given their ongoing energy resource issues for which Russia, if it gets frozen out of Europe, would be in a position to offer help.
My conclusion is that these are exceedingly "interesting" times for US foreign affairs, and I would really like Obama to get as many of them settled as possible before he leaves: I trust him--his careful, intelligent approach--more than any other alternative I can see on the horizon.
*ISIS: The movement has now taken the name (in English) "IS"--Islamic State, probably wanting to avoid association with the ancient Egyptian "devil-worshippers" god Isis, and reflective of their now-global ambitions (as opposed to just Iraq and Syria). The US is now officially referring to it as "ISIL", which is neither a concession to the Islamists' expressed will nor inflammatory. I prefer the inflammatory title, which also is the one in the Atlantic article.