Obama in Control: No lethal aid for Ukraine, no combat troops in Iraq no matter what, and lethal aid for “moderates” in Syria

Friday night fatigue can affect one’s musings on world affairs.

Much of the fatigue this week comes from the news.

The Russian-Ukrainian War

Russia is sending another white truck convoy into the Donbas, probably again without Ukrainian authorization or ICRC and OSCE inspections prior to crossing the border, as in the two prior cases, bearing who knows what cargoes in each direction.

Such violations of Ukraine’s terrirorial integrity, sovereignty, and political independence have become so numerous that they have become routine.

Like repeated rapes of a helpless victim from whom onlookers look away so as not to see, the Russian rape of Ukraine’s sovereignty is repeated often, probably across unmarked tracks in the middle of the night—and by white-truck convoys of who knows what.

In terms of looking away, it was highly significant today that the New York Times didn’t even carry its story on the Poroshenko visit on the front page, relegating the little issue of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and the visit of its president to the back pages.

The repeated rapes of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity have become so routine that almost no one still bothers to object.

Those who seek to investigate and throw light on the Russian invasions are beaten up like the BBC news team this week, or the local legislator who wrote about the dispatch of the unit of a Russian soldier to the Ukraine who was killed there. Or they are labeled as subversive, as in the case of a prominent NGO of mothers of soldiers who pressed too hard for information about soldiers who had died or disappeared in or near the Ukraine.

In America, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko gave an extraordinarily eloquent speech before Congress about what is involved in the Russian-Ukrainian war, calling to mind John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin on June 26, 1963. He then met with Barack Obama, who ruled out giving the lethal aid that he has for months been requesting.

The body language in the photos and videos says it all: Obama does not publicly embrace, with positive energy and enthusiasm, the one leader in the world who personifies the struggle for freedom in the face of military aggression, and who has been orchestrating with great courage the defense of his country against Russian intervention.

Obama may still mouth pretty words about freedom from time to time, but for the Observer his pacifism and appeasement toward Putin, and the incredible record of incompetence he has built over the last six years, have driven home the fact that when it comes to foreign policy he lacks substance.

Obama’s reception of Petroshenko in the White House showed how cold-blooded and petulant the U.S. President has become. He was obviously peeved at Poroshenko for appealing directly to Congress for lethal aid. The package of non-lethal assistance which Obama announced yesterday was paltry, on the order of $50 million dollars foe a country engaged in war with a nuclear power with still perhaps the second strongest military on the planet.

Obama’s stated rationale for refusing lethal aid was pathetic, sounding as if it had not been updated since March: the provision of lethal aid might provoke the Russians to further acts of military aggression. Only days before, NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, U.S. General Philip Breedlove, had described the troop positions of Russian military forces within and on the border of the Ukraine as being arranged to dictate terms to Kiev, or to take Mariupol, while maintaining open suppy lines to the “separatists” in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas which they control

One of the greatest tests of a president is whether he (or she) can ascertain and react to the most urgent threats facing the country. This week, President Obama focused on taking the battle to ISIS or the self-denominated “Islamic State”.

In doing so, he failed to understand the magnitude of the threat represented by Russia, whose army sits astride two regions of the Ukraine following military invasions and annexation of one of them, the Crimea.

Obama may also have been cowed by big business which, in full-page advertsiements in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other newspapers, pressured him not to adopt sanctions against Russia that went further than those the EU imposed. The arguments put forward by the American Association of Manufacturers and the American Chamber of Commerce were lame in the extreme. Here, however, it is campaign contributions and political support—money, in a word—that counts, not the logical strength of arguments for a policy.

The War Against ISIS

In Syria and Iraq, Obama seems determined to use the least amount of military force possible. This led to an open display of civilian-military tensions this week. After Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff Martin Dempsey stated in Congressional testimony that circumstances could conceivably arise that could lead him to recommend the sending of combat troops to Iraq, the next day, Obama went out of his way, before a military audience, to declare that he would not send ground troops to Iraq. Period.

The military was probably not pleased with this put-down of their leader.

The administration’s argument that the Iraqis must take both political and military actions to repel ISIS have merit, but miss the essential point that they may not be sufficient to turn the tide on the battlefield within the time frame needed.

The decision to arm the “moderate” rebels in Syria with $500 million of arms, training and equipment is over two years’ overdue. But the situation has changed. One cannot supply rebels whose goal is to defeat al-Assad and tell them it must be used only to fight ISIS. It won’t work.

The U.S. needs a coherent startegy toward Syria, but doesn’t have one.

The challenge of devising a coherent approach to ISIS and Syria is daunting. Had Obama acted to arm the rebels and take direct military action against Syria to halt the comission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale (which would lead to over 200,000 deaths by 2014), ISIS would not have the weapons, men, money, and control of territory they have today, or represent the overwhelming threat that they have become.

A successful strategy toward ISIS and Syria would require not only effective military action against ISIS within Syria, but also aid to the “moderate” rebels to enable them to fight both ISIS and al-Assad’s forces in order to bring to a halt the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Such a strategy would require taking a clear stand against the barbarism of both al-Assad and ISIS, and defending Western values of respect for fundamental human rights and the rule of law.

Confusion in Threat Perception, Priorities, and Strategic Responses

$50 million in non-lethal aid for the Ukraine, $500 million in lethal aid and training for the “moderate” rebels in Syria.

These actions signify a confusion of priorities and means that is stunning, but wholly consistent with Obama’s leadership of U.S. foreign policy through tightly-controlled decisions by him and his White House foreign policy team, “the gang who couldn’t shoot straight”, whose exploits have been detailed in earlier articles here.

Because the president sets the national agenda, his confusion over priorities affects the press and all of us. That is why the New York Times story on Poroshenko’s visit was buried in the back pages

Obama seems to have no plan for turning back Russian military aggression in the Ukraine, other than to continue down the path of apeasement, taking care not to provoke Putin by supplying lethal weapons to Kiev.

One last thought or feeling can be shared:

The reception given Poroshenko by Obama, including his flat refusal to supply arms and other lethal aid, and the palty amounts of non-lethal aid announced, made yesterday a day of shame for America. The defense of freedom in the world and opposition to military aggression faltered.

From all of Obama’s beautiful words and speeches, the only figure that sticks in the mind is that of a man utterly out of his depth, unable to perceive grave strategic threats to the country or devise effective responses to those he sees.

Of greatest importance to the president, it seems, are the domestic political consequences of foreign policy actions, his own control of every aspect of foreign policy, and the management of his foreign policy narrative through carefully crafted words.

Filled with hubris, he remains determined to impose his own will in implementing foreign policy, in a world where others do not fully understand the issues and he is unable to genuinely see that he has made any mistakes.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.