Instead of a strategy to deal with Isil and Russia, the presidency offers veiled threats
Just in case you thought that the Leader of the Free World was secretly harbouring a calculated, well-developed plan for bringing Isil under control and putting Russia’s imperial leader back in his box, Barack Obama banged that idea firmly on the head last week. He gave an extraordinary briefing, which the Washington press corps had been led to believe would contain a major announcement on the White House strategy on foreign policy. It did. The announcement was that there was no White House strategy on foreign policy. Seriously. In the president’s exact words: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
When that bizarre statement hit the news outlets, the White House spin team flew into full-on operation (ie panic) mode and began tweeting to the effect that what the Commander-in-Chief had actually meant was that there was “a range of options” which were still being considered and that there certainly was something called a “long-term plan” blah-blah-blah. But considering that Mr Obama had devoted most of his press conference to saying what was absolutely not under consideration, ie, any possibility of confrontation with Russia in Ukraine, or US air strikes in Syria as opposed to Iraq (even though the border between the two has now effectively disappeared), or concerted action against the Assad regime (in spite of the fact that the UN has declared it guilty of war crimes), it was difficult to undo the damage. So many things were definitively ruled out that virtually no plausible effective action was left in.
Why on earth did the President of the United States convene a press conference apparently designed to reassure the leaders of Isil, and Vladimir Putin, that America was not about to do any of the things that they feared? There are really only two possible interpretations, neither of them edifying.
The first and most obvious is that the Obama team is hopelessly divided. This became embarrassingly evident when the grotesque murder of the American journalist James Foley by Isil landed the Middle East crisis right on the nation’s doorstep. Mr Obama offered a five-minute blast of rhetorical outrage (before returning to the golf course) but notably no material change in US policy. Then things got rather more confusing.
His defence secretary, Chuck Hagel, stated that Isil was an “imminent threat” to US interests and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, sitting next to him, delivered a thunderous declaration of the need to confront Isil in Syria: “This is an organisation that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days vision that will have to be defeated.” He went on, “Can they be defeated without addressing that part of the organisation that resides in Syria? The answer is no.”
By the next day, both Mr Hagel and Mr Dempsey were, as the Americans say, “walking back” their fateful pronouncements. Isil was now just a “regional threat” with no immediate consequences for US national security.
Then, just to add to the incoherence, the White House Deputy National Security Adviser, Ben Rhodes, proclaimed that the killing of James Foley constituted “a terrorist attack” on the US and said: “We’re actively considering what’s going to be necessary to deal with that threat and we’re not going to be restricted by borders.”
The world’s one remaining superpower seems not only incapable of deciding what to do: it can’t even decide what to say. This is a picture of confusion and contradiction which is quite terrifying in the global circumstances in which we find ourselves.
In truth, however, this is not so unprecedented or even surprising. Democratic governments are rightly reluctant to go to war – or even to risk engaging in actions which could create accidental war. They are often divided in the run-up to such action. Presidents and prime ministers receive conflicting advice (as so many political memoirs recount) on which they must make judgments.
So the crucial factor here is the paralysis of the president himself: it is the proper business of a national leader to decide, to make his choice of what Mr Obama calls the “range of options” and then to act. The hallmark of the Obama presidency in foreign policy has been a refusal to decide and a failure to act.
But the other explanation for this peculiar public recitation of things-we-will-not-do was the subtext of Mr Obama’s remarks last Thursday. He repeated several times that the US would not act without the support of “partners”. (At one point, he said: “[We are] cobbling together a coalition”. The phrase “cobble together” means to make something quickly without much care, using whatever is available: is that really what he meant?)
He spoke of the Nato summit next week where the famous “range of options” would be put forward to allies, and more pointedly of the countries of the region which were most directly affected by Isil. There was a lot of pious obscurity but one thing was clear enough: America will do nothing alone. This would have to be a team effort in which the US would be just one player. So, instead of providing unequivocal leadership, the American presidency offered scarcely veiled threats.
The only country with the military capability to deal with this crisis (as the president boasted) was the US but its intervention would be conditional on the participation of a “coalition of the willing”. For what? Moral cover? Shared political responsibility if it all went horribly wrong?
Mr Obama mentioned Australia, Britain and France specifically as having been consulted but David Cameron’s invitation seems to have been lost in the post: Downing Street claimed that it had received no request from the White House to join action in Syria. Was this yet another failure of communications – or just botched diplomacy being used to conceal doubts all around about where this was going to end?
In the meantime, Mr Cameron, according to some reports, seems ready to make it clear at this week’s Nato summit that he is prepared to consider joining the US in air strikes over Syria. Although there is contradictory briefing going on here too: one government minister was quoted as saying that Mr Cameron “is simply not going to want to get involved this close to an election, even though it’s the right thing to do”.
This will not be the only lively point of debate at that fateful summit. Ukraine is now seeking full membership of Nato, the organisation to which Mr Obama, in one of his few unambiguous statements, gave total support last week. And Nato would seem to be on board for some serious action over Ukraine. What if, as well, Australia, France and Britain prove willing to join in a move against Isil? Will that help the Obama decision-making process or prolong it even further? How Mr Putin, and the terrorists in the Middle East, must be enjoying all this.