Islamabad, Kabul, Moscow, Damascus and Washington: The cumulative impact of “rookie” errors—Obama’s Debacle in Syria — Update #52 (June 16)

The lack of strategic thinking and stumbling execution of Obama’s foreign policy “juggernaut”–“the gang who couldn’t shoot strait” has led to a complicated, deteriorating and increasingly dangerous situation with respect to Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

President Obama and his foreign policy team have demonstrated two great weaknesses in his first 3 1/2 years in office. Both relate to the connectedness of things.

The first and most pervasive weakness has been Obama’s lack of appreciation of international law and and its impact on perceptions of legitimacy among foreign populations and governments, and the many ways in which it influences government behavior. As a result he has failed to use it effectively where it might support U.S. interests, and failed to understand that the reactions of other states to U.S. policies and actions may be strongly affected by international law.

Because of his willful ignorance of international law, Obama has blindly pursued his use of drones for targeted killings even when and where legal justification for their use is most dubious.  Moreover, Obama has made a number of rookie mistakes.

One need only think of the Abbottabad raid that killed Bin Laden, and U.S. officials boasting of the fact that it was undertaken without the Pakistani government’s knowledge or permission, to grasp the point.

See Gardiner Harris (New Delhi), “In New Delhi, Panetta Defends Drone Strikes in Pakistan, New York Times, June 6, 2012.

Harris reported the following remarks:

Leon E. Panetta, the United States defense secretary, brushed aside concerns on Wednesday that drone strikes against leaders of Al Qaeda in Pakistan violate that country’s sovereignty.

“We have made clear to the Pakistanis that the United States of America is going to defend ourselves against those who attack us,” Mr. Panetta said. “This is not just about protecting the United States. It’s also about protecting Pakistan. And we have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves.”

On Monday, a Central Intelligence Agency drone strike in Pakistan’s tribal belt killed Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, American officials said. Such strikes have infuriated Pakistani officials, who have demanded that they end. But the Obama administration considers them a highly effective tool in the battle against Al Qaeda.

Mr. Panetta’s remarks on Wednesday, delivered during a question-and-answer session following a speech he gave here at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, demonstrate yet again how strained the relationship between Islamabad and Washington has become.

He chuckled along with his audience about Pakistan’s lack of warning before the United States killed Osama bin Laden in a raid last year near a huge Pakistani Army base. “They didn’t know about our operation,” Mr. Panetta said to laughter. “That was the whole idea.”

Panetta, a staunch proponent of the drone strikes–many of which he personally authorized during his time as Director of the CIA, has become an increasingly outspoken member of “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”.

The second weakness has been a pattern of reactive, ad hoc foreign policy decision making where the administration appears to see only the immediate crisis in front of it, and seeks solutions which fail to take into consideration their impact on other, related issues. It is almost as if, at the highest levels, they don’t see the connections.

Over time, these weaknesses have produced an accumulation of short-sighted and “rookie” decisions which have compounded the difficulties facing the president. As a result, Obama faces a series of problems where the options are now quite limited due to earlier mistakes.

For example, because of the sharp deterioration in U.S. relations with Pakistan, the United States is now dependent on Russia in significant measure for supply routes to Afghanistan. These will also be needed for the withdrawal of men and equipment in the next two years.

Sour relations with Pakistan limit America’s ability to influence developments in that country, which is of far greater strategic importance to the United States than Afghanistan. They also undermine a key requirement for a relatively secure withdrawal from Afghanistan by the U.S. and its allies, which is Pakistani cooperation in limiting cross-border actions by the Afghan Taliban and related groups, such as the Haqqani network.

There is also evidence of “rookie” pride inhibiting the improvement of relations with Pakistan. Reliable reports suggest that one reason the U.S. withdrew a negotiating team that had been in Pakistan trying to secure the reopening of supply routes to Afghanistan was that he U.S. refused to apologize for an incident in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed by mistake. The U.S. is only willing to express “regret”.


Oliver Carmichal, “US tells Pakistan to ‘bite the bullet’ over Nato supply routes; A senior US government official has said that Pakistan’s government should “bite the bullet” and reopen supply routes to Nato forces in Afghanistan,” The Telegraph, June 12, 2012.

David S. Cloud and Alex Rodriguez, “Defense Secretary Panetta’s Pakistan comments complicate talks; After Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s harsh criticism of Pakistan over militant attacks, talks to reopen NATO supply routes into Afghanistan have stalled,” Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2012.

Eric Schmitt and Declan Walsh, “U.S. Takes Step Toward Exit in Pakistan Talks,: New York Times, June 11, 2012.

On another front, Washington’s paralysis in the face of the ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria has not only allowed that crisis to erupt into flames in a civil war, but has also weakened the credibility of the United States in the region generally, and in Iran in particular.

Obama’s foreign policy regarding Syria has been vacillating, and in the end pusillanimous, as Washington has caved in to each and every Russian threat. The latest threat, hardly subtle, was Dimitri Medvedev’s reference to the risk of nuclear war in the region if a state’s sovereignty was not respected.

The United States has not responded to that threat, pretending that it did not occur. Such a failure to react is downright dangerous, and it may further feed perceptions in Moscow that Obama is a pushover.

Obama’s meeting with Putin at the upcoming G-20 conference is particularly portentous.  After Tom Donilon, Obama’s national security adviser, flew to Moscow and met with Putin, the latter canceled his appearance at the G-8 summit held at Camp David on May 18-19.  Judging from his behavior on Syria, Putin does not seem to have a lot of respect for Obama and his foreign policy team.

This should not be too surprising, as Russia has outmaneuvered the United States at every turn of the Syria crisis. Most notable, perhaps, was the Russian surprise appearance at a meeting of the Arab League at which they secured Arab League approval (or acquiescence) in a five-point peace plan which included a ban on outside intervention. The U.S. seems to have been taken by surprise, though it is always possible that they were aware and supported the initiative–which, if true, would reveal an even higher level of incompetence.

One can only be somewhat apprehensive at the prospect of the Obama and Putin meeting next week.  Obama needs to be wise, and lay the basis for a full U.S.-Russian bilateral meeting in the near future.  Above all, he now needs to give unfledging support to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, who he undercut by sending Donilon to meet with Putin.

See Miriam Elder (Modcow), “Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Moscow, victim of Kremlin ‘Twitter war’; Russian state launches volley of tweets criticising ambassador’s ‘unprofessional’ speech to students on US-Russia relations,” The Guardian, May 29, 2012.

The issue of Iran’s enrichment program, which continues despite setbacks caused in part by acts of cyber-warfare causing centrifuges to explode and other computer problems, has not been resolved, and much time has been lost. The United States will need the firm support of Russia in the ongoing multilateral talks with Iran. This means Russia has further leverage over the United States on the Syrian issue.

The fact that Russia, China and Iran are on the same side of the Syrian question should be a major cause of concern to Obama, but there is little or no evidence that the administration understands the risks involved here. “Driving from the back seat,” Syria is allowed to drift into more and more intense fighting and destruction, with a sharpening of the conflict between the U.S. and Russia which points toward an inevitable collision. This is a matter of grave concern because we are talking about the two most heavily armed nuclear weapons states on the planet.

Russia is now sending weapons and equipment to Syria to enable the Syrians to strengthen their air defense systems, apparently in a bid to forestall any foreign military intervention.

The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s sending missiles to Cuba in 1962, to forestall any U.S. invasion. Were the Russians to introduce medium-range nuclear weapons into Syria, the West would be faced with an acute crisis–without John F. Kennedy, the Captain of PT-109, and the Ex-Com led by Bobby Kennedy to assist in navigating the perilous waters.

The Obama administration is, in the end, embarked on a foreign policy which is reactive, inattentive to realities on the ground, and seemingly oblivious to the moves of other players in these various games, such as Putin and Lavrov. U.S. support for Kofi Annan’s 6-point peace plan, which was fatally flawed and played into the hands of the Syrians and the Russians from day one, provides cogent evidence of this proposition.

Indeed, jettisoning democratic values and the outrage and action called for by al-Assad’s atrocities, Obama’s foreign-policy juggernaut has given us a peculiar kind of “Realism”, one which ignores the realities on the ground.  This Realism has led to interminably weighing theoretical risks of this or that course of action, particularly of action that might actually halt the killing, while completely ignoring the risks of drift and paralysis and the likely consequences of failing to act decisvely in pursuit of a stategy which advances American national interests.  These include, incidentally, projecting and defending America’s deepest values.

Agonizing over the risks of collateral damage if military intervention were employed, these “Obama realists” ignored or greatly undervalued the risk that over 10,000 people would be killed while they temporized. The risk turned into reality, with estimates now reaching 14,000 dead.

Syria demands the full attention of the president and his foreign policy team. We are navigating perilous waters.

President Obama would be well-advised to revamp his national security team on an urgent basis, bringing back into service seasoned professionals with years of experience in the field, in order to temper the intellectual formulations and lack of strategic focus of his current advisers.

The president needs to greatly strenghten his foreign policy team, now.

The Trenchant Observer

For links to other articles by The Trenchant Observer, click on the title at the top of this page to go to the home page, and then use the “Search” Box or consult the information in the bottom right hand corner of the home page. The Articles on Syria page can also be found here. The Articles on Targeted Killings page can also be found here.