Posts Tagged ‘White House’

Obama rejected proposal of Clinton and Petraeus, backed by Panetta and Dempsey, to arm rebels in Syria

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Developing story
–check back for updates

News Reports and Commentary

Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler, “Senate Hearing Draws Out a Rift in U.S. Policy on Syria,” New York Times, February 7, 2013.

John Swaine (Washington), “Leon Panetta supports Hillary Clinton plan to arm Syrian rebels; President Barack Obama rejected calls from four of the most senior members of his foreign policy team to arm the rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian regime, it emerged on Thursday nigh,” The Telegraph, February 7, 2013 (8:54PM GMT).

Words and Deeds: President Obama delivers eloquent defense of free speech and democracy at U.N. General Assembly (with text and video links)

Saturday, September 29th, 2012


On September 25, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, delivering a nuanced and eloquent defense of the right to freedom of speech, liberty, and democracy.

See Remarks by the President to the UN General Assembly, United Nations Headquarters, September 25, 2012. The text of the speech is found here. A video of the speech is found here.

The speech was one of the most significant President Obama has delivered during his presidency. Unlike his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which was carefully framed with deliberate ambiguity regarding compliance with international law, the September 25 address to the General Assembly constitutes a straightforward and powerful defense of democracy and the values of liberty which it expresses.

In particular, President Obama addressed directly the issue of freedom of speech and violent reactions to protected speech that offends Muslims or members of other religions, including the violent actions that led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chirstopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on the night of September 11-12, 2012.

On Syria, however, the president did not say anything significant or new.

If this speech were to embody the real and guiding principles of a second-term Obama foreign policy, its content would be highly significant.

But as we and others have remarked, there is often a gap between the president’s eloquent speeches and the actions of his administration in the real world. As The Daily Star noted in its editorial following the speech,

A rough translation to English of lyrics to a popular Arabic song goes something like this: “When I hear your words I am fascinated, When I see your actions I am flabbergasted.”

These are the sentiments of many people in this part of the world on the occasion of Tuesday’s speech by President Barack Obama before the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

They might also apply to past addresses there by Obama’s predecessors George Bush, Bill Clinton, and other presidents over the past several decades.

The verbal prowess might differ, but the content is usually the same. People often hear positive, upbeat and principled rhetoric, the kind that used to give hope to the Palestinian people, or the wider Arab world.

While people in this region might have been genuinely impressed with the content of some of these speeches in the past, the audience these days has become considerably more cynical, and with good reason.

In order to realize any of the lofty goals laid out in such addresses, several things are required: political will, the tools to succeed and a feasible time frame.

When a politician who enjoys the stature and resources that Obama does makes a decision to talk about the burning issues of the day, he should be prepared to make an effort to put out the fire. Otherwise, the difference between words and actions will lose him more and more of the audience.

–Editorial, “Deeds, not words,” The Daily Star (Beirut), September 26, 2012.

If the speech does represent President Obama’s vision of his foreign policy for a second term, if re-elected, he will have his work cut out for him. For starters, he will have to deal much more effectively with the civil war in Syria, and address the human rights violations that were the subject of President Jimmy Carter’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on June 24, 2012.

See The Trenchant Observer, “’A time to break silence’: Dr. King on the Vietnam war, and President Carter on America’s human rights violations,” June 27, 2012 (revised June 28, 2012).

This would seem to be a tall order for any president. Yet however skeptical if not cynical we may become, we should always hold out some hope that the President, freed from the perceived imperatives of a re-election campaign, might in his search for a place in history find a higher path that leads away from his vision of perrenial warfare, and towards a vision of peace.

If Obama were to focus on visions of peace and how to achieve them, instead of inevitable grinding war and warfare, he might well find in his 2012 address to the General Assembly a skeletal framework for a foreign policy which though deeds could help place him among the great presidents of the United States.

To achieve that goal, as David Ignatius has pointed out, he will need to emerge from the shadows and into the light where the world can see his and America’s actions.  For only from there, in the light of day, can he lead the international community in pursuit of a reinvigorated vision of international peace, and a strategy of concrete actions through which that vision might be achieved.

Without such a shift in approach, President Obama’s place in history will forever be diminished by his foreign policy failures, his violations of human rights and international law, and the failure of his strategic vision for America’s actions in the world.

The Trenchant Observer

Drone Attacks and Other “Targeted Killings” — State Department Legal Adviser Invokes International Law Limits

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

On September 19, 2011, Charlie Savage reported in the New York Times that,

The Defense Department’s general counsel, Jeh C. Johnson, has argued that the United States could significantly widen its targeting, officials said. His view, they explained, is that if a group has aligned itself with Al Qaeda against Americans, the United States can take aim at any of its combatants, especially in a country that is unable or unwilling to suppress them.

While late to take a firm possition, State Department lawyers are now “trying to reach out to European allies who think that there is no armed conflict, for legal purposes, outside of Afghanistan, and that the United States has a right to take action elsewhere only in self-defense,” according to an unnamed high official.

The State Department’s top lawyer, Harold H. Koh, has agreed that the armed conflict with Al Qaeda is not limited to the battlefield theater of Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan. But, officials say, he has also contended that international law imposes additional constraints on the use of force elsewhere. To kill people elsewhere, he has said, the United States must be able to justify the act as necessary for its self-defense — meaning it should focus only on individuals plotting to attack the United States.
–Charlie Savage, “At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight,” New York Times, September 15, 2011

This debate involves much more than a division between the President’s lawyers. For the government’s principal experts on international law are in the State Department, not in the Pentagon. Moreover, it is far from clear that the Judge Advocates General of the Army, Navy and Air Force share the views expressed by the General Counsel of the Pentagon, a civilian appointee whose duties extend far beyond questions of international law. While Koh is also a political appointee, his office is made up of career experts in international law, and he himself is an international lawyer of distinction.

For further details on the debate and the implications of the Pentagon’s position, see

David Cole, “A Secret License to Kill”, NYR Blog, September 19, 2011; and

The Trenchant Observer, “International Law and the Use of Force: Drones and Real Anarchy Unleashed Upon the World,” July 17, 2011

Roland Paris, “Lethal drones strike at our very heart,” The Globe and Mail, September 14, 2011.

In his article, Savage reports that,

The dispute over limits on the use of lethal force in the region — whether from drone strikes, cruise missiles or commando raids — has divided the State Department and the Pentagon for months, although to date it remains a merely theoretical disagreement.

These differing views on the legality of targeted killings are far from theoretical, however, as the United States has reportedly been engaged in a broad pattern of conducting such targeted killings outside the Afghanistan war theater. Moreover, the fact that targets may be high-level or high-value targets does not dispense with the requirement under international law that such attacks be conducted only in self-defense, and in accordance with the specific requirements of necessity, immediacy and proprtionality that are conditions for the exercise of the right of self-defense.

“Signature Stikes” — War Crimes?

Savage also reports that,

In Pakistan, the United States has struck at Al Qaeda in part through “signature” strikes — those that are aimed at killing clusters of people whose identities are not known, but who are deemed likely members of a militant group based on patterns like training in terrorist camps. The dispute over targeting could affect whether that tactic might someday be used in Yemen and Somalia, too.

–Charlie Savage, “At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight,” New York Times, September 15, 2011

Even if these stikes are considered to be within the Afghanistan war theater, obliterating groups of individuals whose identies are unkwown solely on the basis of some probabalistic algorithim appears to violate not only the international law of self-defense but also the precepts of international humanitarian law (the law of war). If that is the case, they constitute war crimes.

The Stakes: War Without Legal Limits, or International Law Governing the Use of Force

Reports of this debate on the legality under international law of targeted killings should be read in conjunction with unquestioned reports that the United States is actively developing a broad range of new drones for warfare, some as small as bees, and other reports that the United States is engaged in building a number of drone bases throughout a broad swath of countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

See The Trenchant Observer, “International Law and the Use of Force: Drones and Real Anarchy Unleashed Upon the World,” July 17, 2011; and

“Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller, “U.S. building secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say,” Washington Post, September 20, 2011.

Connecting the dots, it becomes clear that the fundamental issue the United States faces is whether to seek its future security and that of the world through military means that tear down fundamental norms of international law and the authority of international institutions created to ensure their observance, or rather by acting in concrete ways to uphold and further develop with other countries the international law governing the use of force.

If President Obama wishes to follow the second course, he should listen to the State Department lawyers whose mandate includes both upholding international law and institutions (“dédoublement fontionnel”), and listening carefully to the opinions of international lawyers representing the views of other countries.

All should bear in mind that international law is a collective effort, and not a matter determined by the unilateral views of a single state or a small goup of states.

The Trenchant Observer


“La guerre, c’est une chose trop grave pour la confier à des militaires.”

“War is too serious a matter to just be handed over to some military men.”

–Georges Clemenceau

Update: Torture, The STL in Lebanon, and Obama’s “Way Forward” in Afghanistan

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Today we introduce a new feature in The Trenchant Observer, an occasional column commenting on some of the more important events of the previous weeks in international affairs, as seen by the Observer.

This week’s stories include U.S. policy toward torture prosecutions, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and President Obama’s speech on “the way forward” in Afghanistan.

The United States’ Adoption of the “Due Obedience” Defense in Cases of Torture

This week the Justice Department announced that it would pursue investigations into two cases involving the deaths of detainees who were preseumably subjected to “harsh interrogation techniques” that went beyond the types of torture (as defined in the U.N. Convention Against Torture) that were permitted under the George W. Bush Administration’s “legal guidance”on “harsh interrogation technicques”.

See Eric Lichtblau and Eric Schmitt, “iU.S. Widens Inquiries Into 2 Jail Deaths,” New York Times, July 1, 2011

With that, the Justice department has ended its investigation into the broad class of cases that appear to qualify as cases involving the commission of torture under the terms of the Torture Convention, to which–it must always be stressed–the United States is a party.

By taking the position that it will not prosecute individuals for acts of torture if they were permitted under the legal guidance provided by their superiors in the Bush Administration, the United States has in effect accepted the “due obedience” argument rejected by the Nuremburg Tribunal in its trials of Nazi war criminals following World War II. This rejection of the “due obedience” defense is universally accepted in international law. It is expressly confirmed in the Torture Convention in Article 2 paragraph 3, which provides:

Article 2 (3). An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.

Other countries parties to the Torture Convention may now proceed to prosecute individuals suspected of committing torture found within their territory, without much concern that the U.S. will rquest their extradition for trial in the U.S., given the Justice Department’s position.

This signals a clear and final decision by the Obama administration not to pursue other cases of torture committed during the Bush administration.

It is significant for two reasons. First, it represents a final decision not to prosecute cases of torture by the state with primary jurisdiction, in violation of U.S. international legal obligations under the Torture Convention.

Second, it further opens the way for other states that are parties to the Torture Convention to prosecute U.S. officials for acts of torture they may have committed.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has now issued arrest warrants and delivered the same to the Government of Lebanon for it to carry out the arrests.

In an earlier article, published on March 3, 2011, The Observer wrote:

In Lebanon, Hezbollah withdrew in January from the unity government of Sa’ad Hariri, among thinly-veiled threats of civil war, if the government of Lebanon does not break ties with the U.N. International Tribunal for Lebanon, established by the Security Council to investigate and try those responsible for the assassination of Hariri’s father, Rafiq Hariri, in 2005. Hezbollah is militating against the United Nations Security Council, international law, and the tribunal established by the Security Council because, according to reports, it fears the Tribunal will issue indictments against Hezbollah members in the coming days or weeks.

The Tribunal itself has a statute which establishes due process of law for the hearing of the charges which may be brought by the Prosecutor of the Court. Hezbollah is arguing, if effect, that the Court is biased before any judicial proceedings against its members are initiated, and without regard to the fact that they will have a chance for a fair hearing, the questioning of evidence and of witnesses, in any proceedings that might be brought. With black shirts menacing and threatening to take physical control of West Beirut and large parts of the country, Hezbollah has positioned itself as an anti-democratic force opposed to the struggle for the rule of law within Lebanon, and one opposed to the United Nations, the Security Council and international law.

Outside parties have rushed to mediate. A Saudi-Syrian initiative has now been replaced by a Qatari-Turkish mediation effort. Democracy is in the balance.

What is at stake is the authority of the U.N. Security Council, the United Nations Charter, and international law. If Hezbollah can halt the cooperation of the government of Lebanon with the STL by threats of civil war and dividing the country in two, its success would not bode well for the future of the International Criminal Court or other international tribunals that might be established in the future to deal with issues such as the Hariri assassination or issues of transitional justice.

We will now see whether Hezbollah has changed it position, and is willing to turn away from its opposition to international law, the United Nations, and the authority of the Special Tribunan for Lebanon established by the Security Council.

Democracy and the rule of law in Lebanon hang in the balance.

Obama’s “Way Forward” in Afghanistan

Recently Ambassador Carl Eikenberry completed his term as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. He is being replaced by an extraordinarily skilled deplomat with deep experience in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Ryan Crocker, the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq.

Eikenberry’s departure should not go unnoticed, however. A former head of the coalition forces in Afghanistan before becoming Ambassador in 2009, Eikenberry headed an able diplomatic team. In 2009, toward the conclusion of President Barack Obama’s much-touted review of Afghanistan policy, cables written by Eikenberry in November, 2009 were leaked to the press.

In those cables, Ekenberry, who had a deep knowledge of Afghanistan before assuming his post as Ambassador, set forth his thinking about President Hamid Karzai’s government, the narrow limitations of the Afghanistan policy review, and his own cautionary words about the risks of proceeding with the “surge” of over 30,000 U.S. troops without a broader review.

Today, his words seem prophetic, and read more like the history of the last two years than the risk assessment they were originally intended to be.

See The Observer’s previous columns on this subject:

Eikenberry Memos Place Spotlight on U.S. Dilemmas in Afghanistan
January 27th, 2010

Commentary on Eikenberry Cables, Intelligence on Afghanistan
January 28th, 2010

On June 22, 2011, President Obama delivered an important speech to the nation setting forth his thoughts and policies on “the way forward in Afghanistan.”

Adminral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated publicly that Obama’s new strategy of withdrawal represented more risk than he had originally been propared to accept. The military, including Petraeus, did not agree with what in all likelihood will represent an abandonment of the modified and limited counter-insurgency or COIN strategy Petraeus had led. Toby Harnden of The Telegraph reported, for example,

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, said: “Petraeus loses, Biden wins. And I respect the vice president, but I think that we have undercut a strategy that was working. I think the 10,000 troops leaving year is going to make this more difficult.”

The Pentagon fought a rearguard action to prevent the surge force ordered into Afghanistan by Mr Obama in December 2009 from being pulled out by early spring next year but the withdrawal plan announced by Mr Obama, which had initially been tabled as a “compromise” by Robert Gates, the defence secretary, was not supported by Gen Petraeus.

There were reports of heated discussions during the month before Mr Obama’s prime-time speech on Wednesday night.

White House officials, aware of the soaring costs of the war and its questionable progress could be a political liability in the 2012 election, are said to have clashed with Gen Petraeus, who argued that with more time he could repeat his success in Iraq.

Harnden reported further that Obama had rejected Petraeus’ proposal to move thousands of troops from the south to the east “in order to build a counter-insurgency campaign there.” Obama also overrode Petraeus’ request to keep some of the 33,000 troops to be withdrawn by this spring until 2013.

Two military officers with close ties to Petraeus told “National Journal” that Gen Petraeus disagreed with Mr Gates’s compromise proposal and had not endorsed Mr Obama’s drawdown plan.

–Toby Harnden, “Admiral Mike Mullen says withdrawal plan is a risk,” The Telegraph, June 23, 2010

To those who have followed developments in Afghanistan over the last five to eight years, including readers of The Trenchant Observer, there was nothing new in his speech.

Rather, the Observer’s appraisal of Obama’s approach to international affairs, offered in an analysis of his failed leadership in Libya, seems to describe his Afghan policy as well:

When one looks hard at the decisions he has made, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the president’s primary objective is “to manage” international conflicts and affairs, as domestic affairs, in a manner that will enable him to be reelected in 2012.

Reelection is probably a goal of almost all politicians. Certainly there are exceptions. Winston Churchill comes to mind. But with Presdent Obama, it appears to be the primary and overriding goal.

It is perhaps the prism through which the president’s actions can best be understood. In this sense, Obama’s current policy towards Libya seems to be succeeding.

For commentary on the president’s speech, see

Jennifer Rubin, “Liberals give thumbs down on Obama’s speech,” Washington Post, June 23, 2011

A “conditions based” withdrawal of 10,000 troops is meaningless. The “conditions based” withdrawal of additional troops from the surge will meet its test if and when one or more provinces fall to the Taliban.

A collapse of the Afghan government is not to be ruled out. It could come at a most unexpected moment. If it were to come before the presidential elections in 2012, it could have a decisive impact on their outcome.

The folly of following a strategy in foreign policy that is decisively determined by domestic political considerations is likely to have hard lessons to teach its authors.

The Trenchant Observer

Obama’s Foreign Policy Quagmires and Successes

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

As 2011 begins, it is useful to consider where the U.S. and the world are in terms of developing and implementing foreign policies that address the very serious problems that we face. We shall consider only a few areas here, but readers are encouraged to add their own analyses.

The New START Treaty

On December 22, 2010, the Washington Post reported,

The Senate ratified the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START, by a vote of 71 to 26, easily clearing the threshold of two-thirds of senators present as required by the Constitution for treaty ratification.

For the Washington Post, a margin of five votes amounted to “easily clearing” the requirement of Senate ratification of treaties by a two-thirds margin.

Peter Baker of the New York Times was more circumspect, reporting that

The treaty had the support of the nation’s uniformed military leaders and of a host of Republican national security veterans, including former President George H. W. Bush and five former secretaries of state, Henry A. Kissinger, George P. Shultz, James A. Baker III, Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice. But many of the party’s potential 2012 presidential candidates, like Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and John Thune, came out against it, as did the two top Republican leaders in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Mr. Kyl, the lead Republican negotiator.

Still, he noted, ratification of the New START Treaty amounted to “what is probably the most tangible foreign policy achievement of Mr. Obama’s two years in office.”

It is an important achievement in an area in which there have been few.

The margin of victory, however, laid bare the opposition in the leadership of the Republican party to any major international agreements, even those that are manifestly in the nation’s interest (e.g., by allowing verification to resume). What is remarkable, moreover, is not so much that the treaty was ratified as how close it came to defeat.


On other fronts, the fact that a grand-coalition government has finally been formed in Iraq gives cause for hope, though the final observation of Thomas Ricks in his book, The Gamble, still rings true.

The heart of the Iraq matter still lies before us. [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan] Crocker maintained in both interviews with him in Baqdad in 2008, and he likely is correct. “What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think about ourselves,” he said, “I think is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on than what’s happened up to now.”

“In other words,” Ricks concluded, “the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably have not yet happened.”

–Thomas E. Ricks, The Gamble: David Petraeus and the American Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008 (New York: Penguinn, 2009), p. 325.

Nonetheless, the formation of a grand coalition government in Iraq, with strong U.S. encouragement, amounts to a significant success, at least for the moment.


With respect to Iran, U.S. policymakers might find satisfaction in the fact that they and others were able, through careful and sustained diplomacy, to develop a consensus within the U.N. Security Council that resulted in the imposition of new and tougher sanctions against Iran. Still, Iran continues its uranium enrichment program, which many believe is aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability, or weapon, at the earliest possible date. To be sure, the introduction of the Stuxnet worm into computers involved in Iran’s nuclear program may have slowed the clock down, relieving immediate pressures for military action. On the other hand, there is a great need for public discussion and negotiation of new international legal norms and treaties limiting the use of cyber-warfare, of which the Stuxnet worm may be an early example.


Elsewhere, the landscape is considerably bleaker. Afghanistan is caught in an endless war in which allied forces continue to sacrifice lives and treasure, making progress in military terms, but with little if any evidence of progress on the governance front. There is a good deal of reporting that suggests that the situation vis-à-vis the Taliban, in the country as a whole, is deteriorating.

More ominously, the untimely death of Richard Holbrooke may have eliminated a strong voice from the civilian side of Obama’s policy-making team. Recent reports that the military are making plans to engage the Taliban and other insurgent groups more actively within the territory of Pakistan suggest that a narrow, military view of the struggle in Afghanistan and Pakistan remains ascendant in the White House.

–See Mark Mazzetti and Dexter Filkins, “U.S. Military Seeks to Expand Raids in Pakistan,” New York Times, December 20, 2010.

The much-touted (and promised) December review of the degree to which progress had been made in Afghanistan following the “surge” of 2010, seems not to have occurred in any meaningful sense of the term. The results of the “review”–“stay the course”–were telegraphed well in advance of its formal conclusion.

Obama appears caught in a dilemma with no easy solution. While he succeeded in taking Afghanistan off the table in the 2010 congressional elections, and may succeed in doing so through the 2012 presidential elections as well, there is no viable strategy for improving governance in sight. A significant government collapse–perhaps on the order of the Hue Offensive in South Vietnam in 1968, could cost him the election in 2012.

Yet if he presses the fight against the Taliban and others too far in Pakistan, he may accelerate a destabilization of the government there which leads to a military coup. It is hard to see how Pakistan could be governable or a military government more effective in taking military action against the Taliban under such a scenario, while the risks and dangers of such instability in a nuclear weapons state are manifest.

North Korea

Meanwhile, on the Korean Peninsula, extremely dangerous confrontations involving the use of force occurred in 2010, while North Korea continued its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the context of a looming succession struggle.

Asia, Africa, and Latin America

Elsewhere, in Asia, Africa and Latin America, a number of foreign policy events occurred that were highly significant. We shall offer our observations on some of them in future articles.

Economic Issues

Economic issues, of course, were at the center of some of the most important foreign policy events of 2010, but these lie beyond the scope of the present article. Europe came to the rescue of Greece and Ireland, in particular, and made clear that it would defend the euro and where necessary provide support to euro-zone countries whose financial systems came into crisis. In the United States, a sluggish recovery was underway, but employment remained extremely weak. With further stimulus efforts foreclosed by political divisions, the Federal Reserve Bank decided to start printing money under a program known as Quantitative Easing II or “QE II”. Wall Street has largely recovered, as has the auto industry as a result of a federal rescue package.

November, 2010 Elections

Voters were not impressed, and returned a Republican majority to the House of Representatives, while reducing the Democratic majority in the Senate by five notes–the precise margin of victory in the ratification vote on the New START Treaty.

The Trenchant Observer

Comments are invited.