Posts Tagged ‘the smartest man in the room’

New sanctions, the U.S., Russia and the Ukraine: The smartest people in the room are blundering idiots in foreign policy

Monday, April 28th, 2014

The Editorial Board of the Washington Post addressed the contradiction between Russia’s actions and whatis happening on the ground in Ukraine in terms that cut to the heart ofthe matter:

VLADIMIR PUTIN’S assault on Ukraine has been relentless and increasingly
reckless: Forces working with Russian personnel in eastern Ukraine are torturing and murdering opponents and holding international observers hostage. In contrast, President Obama’s response has been slow and excruciatingly measured. New U.S. sanctions announced Monday fall well short of the steps that senior officials threatened when the Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine began three weeks ago.

No wonder that, even as he announced them, Mr. Obama expressed skepticism that they would work. “We don’t expect there to be an immediate change in Russia’s policy,” a top aide told reporters. This official acknowledged that the United States could take steps that would impose “severe damage on the Russian economy” but was holding them back. The obvious question is: Why would the United States not aim to bring about an immediate change in Russian behavior that includes sponsorship of murder, torture and hostage-taking?

–Editorial, “Obama’s half-measures give Vladi­mir Putin little to fear,” Washington Post, April 28, 2014 (1:38 p.m. ET).

The fine-tuned “targeted sanctions” imposed on Russia by the U.S. and the West are like mosqito bites on Putin and Russia’s leaders. Meanwhile, as Europe and America debated which Step II sanctions to impose this week, Russia’s invasion with special operations forces and others under its direction and control continued to spread unrest in the eastern Ukraine, as Kiev increasingly lost authority and control in the region.

Angela Merkel is reported to have told Barack Obama, after a conversation with the Russian president, that Putin is in another world.

But in point of fact it is Barack Obama, and his extraordinarily weak foreign policy team, who are in another world. Their world is one in which a dictator who has invaded and annexed the Crimea, sent special operations teams into the eastern Ukraine to stir up and coordinate unrest and rebellion, and who has 40,000 to 80,000 troops in combat-ready status poised for an all-out invasion, will be deterred by sanctions prohibiting defense exports “that will increase the capability of the Russian military”.

Barack Obama, the highly-touted and self-proclaimed “smartest man in the room”, in foreign policy and when it comes to dealing with Russia is in fact an amateur, one of the more cluelss members of the group in the room.

His fine intellectual distinctions have had no impact in the Crimea, or now in the eastern Ukraine.

Russian decision making is not attuned to or responsive to such fine intellectual distinctions.

While Russia and its followers are assassinating opponents in the eastern Ukraine, and town after town slips from Kiev’s control–as evidenced above all by the refusal of local police to defend local leaders or buildings, or pro-Kiev demonstrators—Obama thinks of his next round of “smart sanctions” targeted at individuals and companies in Russia.

There is no strong evidence that targeted individual sanctions, alone, have ever worked. Obama is betting the future of Europe on the proposition that, with Russia and the Ukraine, they will.

Obama’s and Europe’s policy toward Russia has been flawed from the start, when they failed to react with serious economic sanctions and other measures in response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea, and again when Russia annexed The Crimean peninsula.

As made clear in the Geneva meeting on April 17, they have signaled to Putin that they would accept a return to business as usual despite the annexation of the Crimea, provided Russia committed no further aggression in the esstern Ukraine. Their statements left the impression that only the movement of regular troops in an invasion of the eastern Ukraine would trigger real economic sanctions–the so-called “Step III” sanctions.

The slaps on the wrists that they ordered have had no apparent impact on Putin or Russian leaders.

When the tale is told by historians of how Barack Obama lost the Crimea to Russia, and then the Ukraine, the story will revolve around an incometent foreign policy team, and the deep roots of pacifism and appeasement that guide Barack Obama, and other U.S. and European decision makers.

Obama’s policy of “slap-on-the-wrist” sanctions has failed. He and Europe have failed to deter Russian intervention in the eastern Ukraine, which is currently proceeding.

Unless radical changes are immediately made in the responses of the U.S. and the West, the eastern Ukraine will soon be lost.

These are the fruits of pacifism and appeasement in the face of Russian aggression in Europe.

The Trenchant Observer

Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter
L’Observateur Incisif
El Observador Incisivo

Isolationism, with drones: Obama’s second-term foreign policy

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Developing story

The smartest man in the room is so intellectually insecure that he doesn’t like to be questioned, and insists that everyone recognize that he is the smartest man in the room, any room.

So, the new foreign policy team the President has chosen are men who are not likely to confront the president with ideas, policies, or proposals that contradict his own.

Joe Biden remains as Vice President, and the resident  foreign policy expert in the White House to whom Obama can turn for advice outside the normal channels.

Tom Donilon keeps his job as National Security Adviser. Donilon is extremely close to Biden.

Senator John Kerry (D-MA) as Secretary of State will be forever grateful that he was chosen for this position. The only question is whether his enthusiasm for Obama’s foreign policy could weaken if the president doesn’t follow his advice, or accord him due respect.  Will he be allowed into “the inner circle”, or will he remain an “outsider”?  Will the generational differences lead to dismissive behavior by the younger “Obamians” whose hubris reflects and is second only to that of the president?  Will they treat Kerry like they did Richard Holbrooke?   Will he be at the center of decision making, or reduced by the end of his term to circling the globe, visiting exotic foreign countries, like Hillary Clinton?

If, on the other hand, Obama really listens to and works with Kerry as a trusted partner, in fact and on an everyday basis, Kerry could surprise us and become an outstanding Secretary of State. He was the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2004, after all. He has been the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committe for many years. He even speaks French, which won’t help him with the “know nothings” in the Republican party, but which could be a considerable asset on the diplomatic circuit.

Former Senator Chuck Hagel is something of a cypher.  As Secretary of Defense, he should go along with defense cuts, and probably not make any suggestions that sharply contradict the President’s thinking. He can be expected to share Obama’s caution on getting militarily involved in places like Syria, for example.  The big question is how he will get along with the military, both the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the uniformed officers at the Pentagon, during a time of cuts and potentially wrenching developments in Afghanistan, where many have served believing in America’s mission there. His former service in combat should serve him well.

He will be put to the test as events unfold.  How might he respond to a collapse of the government in Afghanistan, if one occurs, or naval incidents between China and Japan near islands in dispute? How will he react as the catastrophe in Syria continues to unfold?

He has an independent streak. As with Kerry, much will depend on his developing relationship with Obama, and their day-to-day interaction.

As for John Brennan, Obama’s choice to head the CIA, one can appreciate the benefit to the country of his leaving the White House, where he and Obama have been executing the targeted killing strategy with drone attacks and special forces operations. On the other hand, his past at the CIA should be carefully scrutinized for complicity in torture, as well as in extraordinary renditions.

Moreover, his actions in managing the “kill lists” and targeted killing programs run out of or orchestrated by the White House should be thoroughly and formally investigated by the Senate before he is confirmed. These programs often operate well outside the limits of international law. We have only journalists’ accounts, usually based on anonymous sources, to give us any idea of what is going on.

The American people, in the American democracy which is supposed to be governed by the rule of law, deserve to know more–from official sources–about what actions are being carried out in their name. Other nations also have a strong interest in knowing what actions are being carried out, and the legal justifications under international law that are being advanced to support their legitimacy.

Is it better to get Brennan out of the White House, and pulling Obama out of some meeting or dinner to go off and execute a targeted killing by drone  operation, or to get someone to lead the CIA who is both capable of leading the changes that are necessary—get out of tactical warfare, and restore human and analytical intelligence capabilities that have atrophied, on the one hand, and untarnished by allleged involvement in torture, extraordinary renditions, or drone operations violating international law, on  the other?

To be sure, there is  a presumption of innocence regarding the above, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a new CIA director untainted by the past, and with fresh views undistorted by 25 years of experience at the Agency?

If Brennan is confirmed, his extremely close relationship with the president will give him great influence, both in the White House and within the CIA.  But it is hard to believe that, with his background, he could get the agency out of the drone business, or rebuild its primary human and analytical capabilities.

In the end, Obama will be running his foreign policy directly, with no one on his team who is likely to be able or willing to question his judgment. Much will depend on the degree to which Obama empowers Kerry and Hagel to challenge him.  Anything is possible, but on the record this does not appear likely.

In view of the above, the new team is not likely to exercise  independent initiative, but rather to simply promote Obama’s positions on foreign policy, which will most probably be a continuation of what we’ve seen in the last four years minus the “surge” in Afghanistan.

Look actively for symptoms of “groupthink” in the new team’s policies and actions.

Look for an extreme reluctance to use traditional military force, “regardless of the consequences”.

Instead, watch for continued and increased  use of “targeted killings” by drone attacks and special forces operations, without regard for the sovereignty of the target state involved, or the legality of such operations under international law.

Don’t expect any grand strategy to emanate from the White House, whether on global warming, nuclear proliferation, or approaches to new governments in the Arab world.

Don’t expect any significant new initiatives with respect to the promotion of human rights, the strengthening of civil society, or actions to strengthen democracy and the rule of law in Africa, Latin America, the  countries of the former Soviet Union, or elsewhere.

Don’t look for the president to develop a sudden interest in observing and strengthening international law and institutions.

Don’t look for Obama to secure the adoption of any significant multilateral treaties.  His reputed dream of a major nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia, even if agreed, is not likely to be ratified by the Senate. In December, he was unable to achieve even ratification of a U.N. treaty protecting the rights of disabled individuals.

It is kind of tragic to have a president who, though he was president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, doesn’t understand or have a healthy respect for internationl law and institutions.

So don’t expect President Obama to push for ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights (to which members of the Organization of American States are parties), or the Statute of the International Criminal Court, or the compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

Of course, we may expect to hear lofty speeches from time to  time, as we did in the last four years. But look for the actions that support the noble ideas expressed in the speeches, such as the actual levels of foreign assistance funding dedicated to the promotion of democracy and the rule of law in different countries.

Obama’s foreign policy in the next four years could turn out to be as disastrous and ineffective as U.S. policy toward Syria has been in the last two years.  Obama will continue to drive from the back seat, guided by highly abstract conceptions regarding foreign policy issues.  Specific decisions will be taken on the basis of ad hoc considerations, couched in abstract ideas regarding matters on the ground as seen from 30,000 feet.

Policy will not change in response to public criticism and suggestions, though it could occasionally be modified in response to stiff resistance from other states.

Now that the 2012 election is behind him, Obama doesn’t need to accede to military pressures in places like Afghanistan, as he did with the “surge” in 2009-2010.

The road is clear for him to pursue a withdrawal from the world in economic and military terms.

He is essentially a “domestic” president, with little real interest or passion for world affairs. This will be reflected in his foreign policy, at least until a deadlock blocking further domestic action leads him to look for foreign policy achievements in the latter part of his second term.  These will not be easy to obtain, as the groundwork will not have been laid in the first six years.

In conclusion, Obama’s foreign policy for the next four years is likely to be one that can be summed up as,

“Isolationism, with drones.”

The Trenchant Observer

White House thinking and Obama’s Reaction to Events in Egypt

Saturday, December 15th, 2012

The New York Times reports today on the thinking of officials behind the very bland reaction of Barack Obama and the United States to recent developments in Egypt, including Morsi’s seizure of dictatorial powers and the draft constitution which he pushed through the National Assembly–using dictatorial powers and by-passing the Constitutional Court– and submitted to the national referendum now being held on December 15 and December 22.

See David D. Kirkpatrick, “Obama Walks a Fine Line With Egyptian President,” New York Times, December 13, 2012 (December 15, 2012 print edition).

According to Kirkpatrick, following the clashes on December 6 between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators in front of the presidential palace, which left seven individuals dead, Obama in his call to Morsi did not reprimand him for what had happened.

Instead, a senior Obama administration official said, the American president sought to build on a growing rapport with his Egyptian counterpart, arguing to Mr. Morsi that it was in his own interest to offer his opposition compromises, in order to build trust in his government.

“These last two weeks have been concerning, of course, but we are still waiting to see,”said another senior administration official… “One thing we can say for Morsi is he was elected, so he has some legitimacy”(emphasis added).

As Egyptians vote Saturday on the draft constitution, the results may also render a verdict on …the Obama administration’s bet that it can build a workable partnership with a government guided by the Brotherhood — a group the United States shunned for decades as a threat to Western values and interests.

As for Mr. Morsi, administration officials and other outside analysts argue that so far his missteps appear to be matters of tactics, not ideology, with only an indirect connection to his Islamist politics….

What is more, the leading opposition alternatives appeared no less authoritarian…

But White House officials say that although the (constitutional) charter may be vague, it does not impose a theocracy. “The question will be, how does the next Parliament implement what is in the constitution, and what is their vision for Egypt?” said Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

Under current Egyptian law, the president is allowed to fill about a third of the seats in the upper house of Parliament, known as the Shura Council, and one idea is that he could appoint political opponents, evening out the balance. The chamber is the sole legislature until parliamentary elections, handling delicate matters like the election laws.

It is absolutely amazing to hear the kinds of arguments the president and his aides employ in discussing what is going on in places like Syria, or Egypt.  After a coup d’etat, the use of Nazi “brown-shirt” tactics to shut down the Constitutional Court, and the deaths of seven demonstrators, the thinking in the White House is that these events are “concerning”?

The aides who are quoted in Kirkpatrick’s article obviously have no personal understanding of the Middle East or what is going on in Egypt. It is fightening to consider that these individuals are influencing and reflecting White House thinking on such key policy decisions.

It was not too long ago, it will be recalled, when Obama’s policy toward Syria consisted of plans to ask the Russians for help.

See Matt Williams, “US condemns Syria massacre and looks for Russian help to oust Assad; Hillary Clinton harshly condemns Syrian president as Obama reportedly plans to urge Putin to back a transition of power,” The Guardian, May 27, 2012.

The thinking at the White House, on Egypt as on Syria, is at a very high level of abstraction, with ideas being thrown out without the staff work and winnowing process through which proposals which come up through the State Department normally have to pass. In effect, Obama by directly controlling the foreign policy of the U.S. on critical issues, such as Egypt and  the policy toward toward Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, tends to cut out the inputs of the ambassadors, area experts, and higher officials in the State Department who should have a better idea of what is really going on. The Secretary of State, who should be centrally involved in these decisions, seems to have been relegated to a secondary role. 

Above all, thinking by Obama and his aides on foreign policy tends to consist of abstract ideas, which lack the granularity of ideas that are anchored in a deep appreciation of events on the ground, the context in which they occur, and their implications.

If the United States is to correct these defects and to shift its course from one of repeated foreign policy failures (Benghazi is but one example, emblematic of the rest), President Obama will need to select a new foreign policy team with clout.  He will need to find–and enlist–people of great stature, capability and relevant experience, who because of who they are and their own internal make-up have the ability to tell him directly when and why they disagree with him whenever they do.

The smartest man in the room needs other smart people in the room, who will speak forthrightly to him–and to whom he will listen.

The Trenchant Observer

Further reading:

The Trenchant Observer, “Morsi’s coup in Egypt: Obama’s silence, America’s shame,”
December 7, 2012

David Ignatius, “Our man in Cairo,” Washington Post, December 7, 2012 (5:01 p.m.)

The Trenchant Observer, “Is Obama losing Egypt?” December 6, 2012

The smartest person in the room, and the Afghanistan policy review

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

Continuing Reflections on “the Smartest Person in the Room”

In a previous article, we offered some observations on the report that President Obama always considers himself to be the smartest person in any room.

See “Is Obama the Smartest Person in the Room?” October 22, 2010

This is a theme worth pursuing, for it touches on the issue of the hubris of the Obama administration, which grates even on some of the president’s strongest supporters.

Some 35 years ago, Richard C. Holbrooke, currently President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, offered a few insights into the issue of “the smartest person in the room.”

See Richard C. Holbrooke, “The smartest man in the room,” Harper’s Magazine, June, 1975.

Wrote Holbrooke,

In a similar instance, reported by Stewart Alsop, a senior CIA official who regularly briefed Defense Secretary McNamara on Indochina, using all the statistics and data compiled by the Pentagon, suddenly asked McNamara if he could offer a personal observation. When McNamara agreed, according to Alsop, the official said that he had spent much of his life working on Southeast Asia and, yes, he knew that the statistics showed that we were winning but that somehow, deep down in his bones, he just didn’t feel comfortable with all those signs of progress. Deep down he felt that things were rotten. McNamara asked for reasons, data, empirical evidence. The official couldn’t give any, he said; it was just a feeling, McNamara thanked him for his comments, dismissed him, and asked the CIA to send over another briefer.

Briefing someone that smart could be very difficult…People who had important things to say were cut off in mid-thought because they were not articulate enough to frame their thoughts in the precise, logical, bright way that was desired, if not required.

But sometimes the slower-speaking, less smart person was right; sometimes the smart ones were wrong. So finally it started to become clear: the smartest man in the room is not always right.

Worth noting is that Holbrooke is apparently not among the president’s favorite advisers.

Bob Woodward in Obama’s Wars reports, ” It wasn’t until well into the Obama presidency that Holbrooke learned definitively how much the president didn’t care for him.” Woodward recounts how Holbrooke had asked hiim to call him “Richard” instead of ” Dick”, which Obama told others he found “unusual” and even “strange”. (p. 211) One might equally note that mortifying a key adviser is a bit unusual and strange as well.

Earlier in the book Woodward quotes Vice-President Joe Biden as telling Obama, “He’s the most egotistical bastard I’ve ever met, but maybe the right guy for the job.” (p. 72)

Reading Obama’s Wars, one comes away with the impression that the strategic review of Afghanistan policy was managed by a president who thought he was the smartest person in the room, and who conducted the meetings he attended in a tense and formal manner which did not encourage genuine debate.

Weeks were spent discussing whether the mission of the allies and the additional forces requested by General Stanley McChrystal was to be to “defeat” the Taliban, or to “degrade” the Taliban so they couldn’t overthrow the government in Kabul. The practical significance of this distinction, on the ground, appears to be at best dubious.

Very little attention, according to Woodward, was paid to the question of what was likely to happen in Afghanistan after the U.S. drew down its forces, and just what a negotiated settlement with the Taliban would lead to after ISAF forces had withdrawn.

This was not Bobby Kennedy leading the sessions of the Ex-Com set up by President John Kennedy to advise him during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Reading Woodward’s book, one is struck by the lack of discussion of how to handle the election fraud underway in Afghanistan, and of the full implications of sticking with Karzai. By not discussing this critical issue, and not having CIA Director Panetta or Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair present at the last meetings, a critical opportunity to change the dynamics of the governance game in Kabul was lost. This opportunity was right under their noses, so to speak, but–at least according to Woodward–not directly discussed.

Ambassador Eikenberry was absolutely rignt in pointing out in his cables that the Afghanistan policy review had a very narrow focus, and did not adequately take a wide range of considerations into account.

The way this policy review was managed by the president is troubling, and requires further reflection.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.