September 12, 2013

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky

Filed under: Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:44

Steve Chapman thinks Barack Obama is a very lucky man indeed:

In assessing the feasibility and probability of Russia’s proposal to secure Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons, one overlooked factor should be paramount in our minds: Barack Obama is the luckiest politician on the face of the planet. If he were tied to a railroad track, the train would levitate and pass harmlessly over him. He’s always the windshield, never the bug.

In this instance, Obama got himself into a box that would flummox Harry Houdini. In a procession of careless comments, he said Assad had to go and that if he ever used chemical weapons against rebels, he would face “enormous consequences.”

When the Syrian dictator used them anyway, Obama was forced to prepare for a military strike that found scant public support. When he tried to gain the upper hand by asking for congressional authorization, he got an Arctically frigid reception.

So he faced two unpleasant possibilities: Congress would refuse, in which case he would look like a chump. Or it would agree, forcing him to carry out an attack that was likely to accomplish nothing except to wreck his approval rating.

But then along came the Russians to open an escape route. Acting in response to another unscripted remark, from Secretary of State John Kerry, they proposed to place Syria’s chemical gas arsenal under international control. The Syrians responded by not only admitting that they had such weapons, but offering to surrender them.

The proposal sounded implausible and impractical, but it had too many things going for it to be passed up. Most importantly, it serves the interests of every important party. It spares the Syrian regime a damaging attack by the United States. It spares the rebels being gassed again. It validates the great power status of Russia — and might even win Vladimir Putin a Nobel Peace Prize.

Not least, it saves Obama from looking like an appeaser, a warmonger or an incompetent. It even allows Kerry to portray the administration as unsurpassed in its diplomatic brilliance.

American voters suddenly decide to take a serious look at foreign policy

Filed under: Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:58

A guest post at Zero Hedge by Robery W. Merry suggests that somnolent American interest in foreign policy may be waking up:

Political analysts over the next year or so, and historians well into the future, are likely to point to the fall of 2013 as a fundamental inflection point in American politics. That period, they will say, is when the American people forced a major new direction in American foreign policy. Before the events of this fall, the country’s electorate largely delegated foreign policy to its political elite — and largely supported that elite as it projected American military power with more abandon than the country had ever before seen. Even as the government steadfastly expanded the range of international problems that it said required U.S. military action, the electorate accepted that expanded international role and that increasingly promiscuous use of force.

Those days are gone now. The American people conveyed emphatically, in public opinion surveys and in communications to their representatives in Washington, that they did not want their country to launch air strikes against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Not even if Assad used chemical weapons against his people, as they generally believe he did. Not even if the strikes are limited in magnitude and duration, as Obama promises they will be. Not even if the president of the United States says the strikes are in the country’s national interest. They don’t buy it, and they don’t want it.

Poll numbers in recent days have demonstrated this turnaround in stark fashion. In addition, congressional reluctance to support the president’s authorization request was growing inexorably. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the president was “losing ground in both parties in recent days,” while the Wall Street Journal said support for Mr. Obama’s position on Syria “was slipping in Congress.” If Russia’s Vladimir Putin hadn’t interrupted the U.S. political process with his call for a negotiated end to Assad’s possession of chemical weapons, it seems inevitable that the president would have suffered a devastating political defeat in Congress. That’s still the likely outcome if it ever comes to a vote.


In a survey reported in Tuesday’s New York Times, the paper asked broader questions about American foreign policy, and the results were revealing. Fully 62 percent of respondents said the United States shouldn’t take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. On a question whether the United States should intervene to turn dictatorships into democracies, 72 percent said no. Only 15 percent said yes. The Times said that represents the highest level of opposition recorded by the paper in various polls over the past decade.

To understand the significance of these numbers, along with the political pressures building on lawmakers on the issue, it’s important to note that American political sentiment doesn’t change willy-nilly, for no reason. What we’re seeing is the emergence within the American political consciousness of a sense that the country’s national leaders have led it astray on foreign policy. And, given the country’s foreign-policy history of the past two decades, it isn’t surprising that the people would begin to nudge their leaders with a certain amount of agitation.

September 10, 2013

The Authorization for the Use of Military Force is “TARP with Tomahawks”

Filed under: Government, Middle East, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:25

At Reason, Gene Healy explains why the authorization should not be granted to President Obama by congress:

Tonight, President Obama, who rose to the presidency on the strength of stirring speeches, goes back to the well with a prime-time address urging Congress to authorize an attack on Syria.

He admits it’ll be “a heavy lift.” And how: per the Washington Post’s latest whip count in the House, even if all 170 undecideds break their way, the administration won’t be within shouting distance of a majority.

That’s good, because the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that’s on the table deserves to fail. It’s TARP with Tomahawks.

The provisions purporting to restrict the president to a brief, “limited and tailored” war are too weak to stick.

What’s more, they’re undermined by the AUMF’s gratuitous overstatement of presidential power: “The President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States.”

Wrong. The Constitution gives him the power to “repel sudden attacks” against the U.S., not launch them whenever he imagines they’ll promote our “national security interests.” That language practically invites Obama to ignore the limits and wage a wider war.

Update: In another post at Reason the current polling certainly encourages congress not to cave to the President’s wishes.

As the country debates launching airstrikes on Syria, President Barack Obama’s standing on foreign policy has taken such a hit that the latest Reason-Rupe poll finds 64 percent of Americans, including 68 percent of independents and 41 percent of Democrats, believe President Obama’s handling of foreign policy is worse than, or the same as, former President George W. Bush’s handling of foreign policy.

President Obama famously said he opposes “dumb wars.” Nearly three-quarters of Americans, 74 percent, say it would be “unwise” for the United States to launch airstrikes on Syria without the support of the United Nations or Great Britain. Just 17 percent say U.S. strikes on Syria would be wise.

When it comes to launching U.S. military action across the globe, 47 percent of Americans say the “political establishment in Washington D.C.” is more likely to favor military action than they are. A majority of independents, 57 percent, say D.C. insiders are more likely to favor war than they are. In contrast, just 17 percent of Americans say the Beltway establishment is less likely to favor military action than they are, and 30 percent say the establishment favors war about the same amount as the public.

September 8, 2013

VDH on Obama’s limitations

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:19

A Victor Davis Hanson post from a couple of days ago, but still of interest:

How did Obama get himself into this mess? It was bound to happen, given his past habits. All we are seeing now is the melodramatic fulfillment of vero possumus, lowering the rising seas, faux Corinthian columns, hope and change, the bows, the Cairo speech, and the audacity of hope. Hubris does earn Nemesis.

1) His inclination is to damn straw men, blame others for his self-inflicted errors, and spike the ball when he should keep quiet and become modest (cf. the bin Laden raid). So in Syria we heard the same old, same old: A host of bad guys, here and abroad, wants to do nothing. Obama alone has the vision and moral compass to restore global and U.S. credibility through his eloquence; but the world disappointed him and is now at fault for establishing red lines that it won’t enforce: He came into the world to save the world, but the world rejected him.


2) Obama thinks in an untrained manner and for all the talk of erudition and education seems bored and distracted — and it shows up in the most critical moments. Had he wished to stop authoritarians, prevent bloodshed and near genocide, and foster true reform in the Middle East, there were plenty of prior, but now blown occasions: a) the “good” war in Afghanistan could have earned his full attention; b) the “bad” Iraq War was won and needed only a residual force to monitor the Maliki government and protect Iraq airspace and ensure quiet; c) the green revolution in Iran was in need of moral support; d) Qaddafi could have been continually pressured for further reform rather than bombed into oblivion; e) postwar Libya needed U.S. leadership to ensure that “lead from behind” did not lead to the present version of Somalia and the disaster in Benghazi; e) long ago, the president could have either kept quiet about Syria or acted on his threats when Assad was tottering and the resistance was less Islamist; f) he could have warned the one vote/one time Muslim Brotherhood early on not to do what everyone in the world knew it would surely do; g) he need not have issued tough serial deadlines to Iran that we have not really enforced and probably have no intention of enforcing.

Instead, Obama relied on his rhetoric and talked loosely, sloppily and inconsistently from crisis to crisis, the only common denominator being that he always took the path of least resistance and thus did nothing concretely to match his cadences. Usually to the degree he made a decision, he made things worse with empty, first-person bombast.

September 7, 2013

Here’s a poll we’d like to see

Filed under: Government, Humour, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:14

Zero Hedge conducts its own poll on this question:

As President Obama continues to push for a plan of limited military intervention in Syria, a new poll of Americans has found that though the nation remains wary over the prospect of becoming involved in another Middle Eastern war, the vast majority of U.S. citizens strongly approve of sending Congress to Syria.

The New York Times/CBS News poll showed that though just 1 in 4 Americans believe that the United States has a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian conflict, more than 90 percent of the public is convinced that putting all 535 representatives of the United States Congress on the ground in Syria — including Senate pro tempore Patrick Leahy, House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and, in fact, all current members of the House and Senate — is the best course of action at this time.

“I believe it is in the best interest of the United States, and the global community as a whole, to move forward with the deployment of all U.S. congressional leaders to Syria immediately,” respondent Carol Abare, 50, said in the nationwide telephone survey, echoing the thoughts of an estimated 9 in 10 Americans who said they “strongly support” any plan of action that involves putting the U.S. House and Senate on the ground in the war-torn Middle Eastern state. “With violence intensifying every day, now is absolutely the right moment — the perfect moment, really — for the United States to send our legislators to the region.”

“In fact, my preference would have been for Congress to be deployed months ago,” she added.

August 31, 2013

New rule of thumb for military adventures

Filed under: Britain, Middle East, Military, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:16

James Joyner suggests a new rule of thumb needs to be used:

Could anyone have imagined a decade ago a scenario when the United States would go to war with France by our side and England on the sidelines?

I anticipate English muffins being renamed Freedom muffins any day now. And jokes about kippers eating surrender bulldogs or some such.

More seriously, perhaps recent experience has provided us a rule of thumb: if Washington can not persuade both London and Paris of the advisability of military action, perhaps said action is inadvisable?

The leaders discuss the Syrian situation on Facebook

Filed under: Humour, Media, Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:59

A rather amusing little squib from Best of Cain (via American Digest):

Cain - Facebook posts on Syria

QotD: “Face It World. You F’d Up; You Trusted Me”

Filed under: Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

For the first time since the Brits grew exhausted with the Hurricane of Fists they were getting from the 13 colonies, the British parliament voted against the government on an issue of war. Obviously, this was not directly Barack Obama’s fault. But he’s hardly blameless either. This mess is part of the larger mess he created. Obama follows polls and acts like it’s courage. He mocks and belittles American leadership and then is shocked when no one wants to follow America. We were supposed to be in an era of renewed global cooperation and engagement. Instead, Obama can’t hold the support of our closest ally — because the British Left balked. Forget forging new alliances with “former” enemies — as Obama promised would happen once it dawned on the Arab street that his middle name is “Hussein” and they realized he’s black; Obama can’t even maintain historic alliances with longstanding friends.

Oh, and thank goodness Hillary Clinton gave the Russians a big toy button with the word “overcharge” on it. We’re really reaping the payoff on that now.

Part of the problem stems from the simple fact that Obama can’t sell anything but himself. Even when he tried — and he really tried — he couldn’t sell Obamacare to the American people. When it comes to the Syria intervention — which, if done right, I am in favor of — he’s not even trying to sell. His body language in that PBS interview was that of a husband forced to explain to his wife how he got the clap. He talked like a teenager looking at the floor while telling his parents that he doesn’t know how their car ended up in the neighbor’s swimming pool. The only thing his “shot across the bow” talk did for him was convince everyone that he’s not wagging the dog to boost his poll numbers. A war-mongering charlatan would at least fake commitment better.

And that goes for his entire national-security team. To listen to this sorry bunch try to explain why they’re doing everything right while doing everything they once criticized is painful, like watching Helen Keller give a whirl at karaoke. I am perfectly willing to concede that this is a very complicated situation with few clear right answers. But this crowd insisted that everything was simple if you were smart like them. And now that the smarty-pants brigade got us into this mess, they still talk like anyone who disagrees with them is a moron. I mean, as bad a salesman as Barack Obama is, Jay Carney is worse. If he ran a massage parlor he couldn’t sell a happy ending to a drunk sailor during Fleet Week in Bangkok.

Jonah Golberg, “The Goldberg File”, 2013-08-30

August 29, 2013

British parliament defeats government motion on Syria

Filed under: Britain, Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 16:42

Twitter just lit up with the news that Prime Minister David Cameron’s motion to allow military action against Syria has been soundly defeated in parliament. The reported voting line was 272 in favour and 285 against. This was not a confidence motion — the government will not be forced to resign over this vote, but it’s a strong slap in the face to Clegg and Cameron.

The US Navy’s overstretch

Filed under: Middle East, Military, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Sir Humphrey points out that the Syrian situation actually shows how thin the US Navy’s resources have become:

This crisis has been dominated by impressive images of US warships firing cruise missiles, and maps showing large warships steaming menacingly in the Eastern Med. Publicly we know that four USN escorts are currently in the region, each armed with a significant quantity of missiles. What is so striking though is how this illustrates just how thinly stretched the USN is these days. Until the end of the Cold War, the Med was practically a British, then US lake. Dominated by naval bases, and home to large numbers of carriers, escorts and other vessels, any crisis would quickly have seen an almost overwhelming concentration of US firepower.

Today, the 6th Fleet has no permanently assigned escorts, and is instead reliant on other vessels transiting the area. At present it seems that three US vessels were in the area (although it is unclear I they were taken off other tasks) and one more has joined them. This is the totality of the US escort fleet in the Med (and quite possibly Europe as a whole). It is telling that there is no carrier deployed in the AOR, and that the next nearest escorts and Carrier are deployed in the Gulf. Although they could move, this would leave the Arabian Gulf without a carrier, and it is questionable whether any commander would be willing to see a CVN conduct a Suez transit right now, particularly if strikes against Syria are occurring. Partly this is a result of fewer ships, and also an impact of sequestration, where planned deployments were cancelled. The harsh reality though is that US naval power has been heavily emasculated — claims of the Med being a US lake are simply no longer true.

The worry is that this problem is only going to get worse with time; the USN faces a major challenge in keeping hull numbers up, and more importantly maintained to a reasonable level. The challenge of handling major budget cuts is that this sort of presence will inevitably be reduced. So, perhaps closer attention should be paid to how the US is meeting the response, as this is likely to be the sort of thing we’ll see in future — not overwhelming numbers of ships and aircraft, but a small number of escorts, taken off other tasks in order to do the job. One lesson is clear — the USN remains an immensely potent navy, but its ability to project the sort of power that the world is used to is perhaps far less than many realise.

August 28, 2013

Military deployments near Syria

Filed under: Middle East, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:31

Zero Hedge passes on a bit of analysis from Stratfor:

In the event of a punitive strike or a limited operation to reduce Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s chemical weapons delivery capability — for instance, by targeting key command and control facilities, main air bases and known artillery sites — the United States already has enough forces positioned to commence operations.

US deployments near Syria 20130828

Four Arleigh Burke-class destroyers — and probably a nuclear-powered cruise missile submarine — are already within Tomahawk cruise missile range of Syrian targets. In addition, the United States can call upon strategic bombers based in the continental United States as well as B-1 bombers from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. In such an operation, the United States would be able to carry out standoff attacks beyond the range of Syrian air defenses, while B-2 bombers could stealthily penetrate the Syrian air defense network to drop bunker-busting bombs with minimal risk.

Considering that al Assad’s forces have a number of ways to deliver chemical weapons, ranging from air power to basic tube and rocket artillery, an operation that seeks to degrade the regime’s ability to launch chemical weapons would necessarily be far wider in scope and scale. This means tactical aviation would have to play a key role in such a campaign, which in turn would entail the deployment of significant enabler aircraft such as aerial refueling tankers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets.

In addition, as reported the other day, the French carrier Charles de Gaulle has been ordered to move east from Toulon and the British are reported to have a nuclear submarine in the region as well.

Update: The Iranian Farsnews site says the US military will be in for a serious defeat if they attack Syria.

Syria’s supersonic and anti-ship missiles as well as the Lebanese Hezbollah movement will inflict astonishing damage on any invading force, specially the US Navy’s giant warships, an expert said, adding that the missile capability is working as a deterrent to a US naval attack on Syria.

“The supersonic and long-range anti-ship Yakhont missiles of the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah (resistance movement) are serious deterrents to a US naval attack by its warships in the Mediterranean Sea,” Dr. Mostafa Zahra, a military analyst and strategic studies expert, told FNA on Monday.

He said that Syria’s Iskandar high-precision ballistic missiles and its anti-ship Scud missiles will also target the US warships in case of a US naval invasion of Syria, reminding that the American military vessels are not equipped with any weapons system to intercept or divert the Syrian anti-ship missiles.

Did you hear that, Great Satan? “Astonishing damage“. You’d better back off now, infidel.

August 26, 2013

Suddenly of greater interest to the media – where are the carriers now?

Filed under: Britain, Middle East, Military, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:39

Zero Hedge pulled a quick summary of US, French, and British naval units in light of the rumours of some kind of attack on Syria:

  • A U.S. military source said on Friday the U.S. Navy was increasing its number of cruise missile-carrying destroyers in the Mediterranean to four from three by delaying the return to the United States of the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Mahan.
  • The aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman, by far the most powerful warship in the region, left the Mediterranean last weekend, passing through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea.
  • Defence experts say the carrier could still strike Syria from south of Suez. As well as the strike aircraft carried by the Truman, several of her escort ships are also capable of firing Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles.
  • Since earlier this year, the United States has also had F-16 jets in Jordan, where they remained after a major military exercise this year at the request of the Jordanian government. It also has a major air base at Incirlik in Turkey that could easily house multiple aircraft as part of a wider military campaign.

Carrier locations - late August 2013

The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is still in or near Toulon, while the Royal Navy is said to have at least one Trafalgar or Astute class submarines in the Mediterranian. The RN no longer has in-service aircraft carriers, so any British air support would have to be from the RAF, possibly based in Cyprus (but subject to local government approval).

Update: This report says that the USS Ramage is also being retained in the Mediterranean along with the USS Mahan.

Update, 27 August: It was just mentioned (no link) that the Charles de Gaulle has been ordered to leave port, bound for the Eastern Mediterranean.

June 18, 2013

“Call it Jihadi sushi”

Filed under: Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:00

The difficulty of choosing the right side in the Syrian civil war is that there may not be one:

At his awkward press conference with David Cameron on Sunday, Vladimir Putin made an astonishing claim — the Syrian rebels eat people. It happens to be true. Putin was presumably referring to Abu Sakkar, a rebel leader who videoed himself eating a combatant’s lung. Sakkar explained that he did it in revenge for footage he found on the dead man’s phone of the government soldier raping women. “I swear to God we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog!” cried Sakkar. For some Islamists, dedicating such an act to God is not as sacrilegious as it sounds. Students at Al Ahzar University in Cairo — an educational institution once graced by Obama’s presence — have access to a textbook that teaches it’s okay to eat apostates so long as the meat is not cooked. Call it Jihadi sushi.

The story underlines how difficult it is to choose the side of good in Syria: Assad’s men are rapists, the rebels are cannibals. When deciding what to do, the West has to avoid two templates of disaster. We don’t want another Rwanda, when the West stood aside and tolerated a genocide and we don’t want another Iraq, when the West got involved and stayed involved almost for a decade.

What Britain, France and America have decided to do is something in-between. Ignore the hyperbole about intervention from some in the press: at this stage all the alliance is threatening is to give logistical support to the rebels through non-military aid and a no-fly zone. Of course, this could escalate. But no Western leader wants to put boots on the ground and the goal of the sabre-rattling is actually to prod Russia into dragging Assad to the negotiating table at the proposed conference in Geneva (by the way, Putin might deliver on that but it’s far less likely that we’ll get the rebels to play ball on our side). We are deliberately internationalising the conflict, turning it into a giant game of chicken between America and Russia in the hope that they will resolve the war on behalf of the Syrian combatants.

June 5, 2013

US policy on Syria is 1979 all over again

Filed under: Middle East, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:38

In the Miami Herald, Glenn Garvin points out that the US went down this geopolitical path in 1979, with less than stellar results:

The problem in our capital is not that there’s too much division between Republicans and Democrats, but that they’ve merged into a single War Party when it comes to the Middle East.

There might have been at least a tenuous case to be made for intervention in Syria back at the beginning of its civil war, at least if you accept the view that the United States cannot disengage from the Middle East because it is, for the foreseeable future, joined at the hip with Israel.

Unlike Libya or Somalia, strategically useless states in the middle of nowhere in which Washington mysteriously chose to intervene, Syria is a pivot point in the Middle East. It shares long borders with our two major allies in the region, Israel and Jordan, who cannot help but be affected by what goes on in Syria.

Two years ago, we could have acted decisively to end the Syrian civil war before it really got started. We could have made a realpolitik decision to support Assad, who, though a vicious brute to his own people, mostly minds his own business. Or we could have thrown in wholeheartedly with the rebels, picking one faction to provide with arms and international prestige, keeping (maybe) the worst elements out of power.

Instead, the Obama administration dithered, denouncing Assad and drawing lines in the sand over his behavior, then backing away every time he crossed one. We managed to alienate both sides as well as convincing all concerned that our bark had no bite.

In short, Obama has adopted as his guide Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy of 1979, when the United States cluelessly half-yanked the rug from beneath the shah in Iran and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, then primly tsk-tsked their opponents. The eventual result was that two of our allies were replaced with regimes implacably hostile to our interests, which quickly began destabilizing everything around them. Sadly, that’s now the best possible outcome in Syria. If the War Party get its way, you’ll see the worst.

H/T to Nick Gillespie for the link.

May 4, 2013

Israeli air attack on missile shipment in Syria

Filed under: Middle East, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

It’s almost anti-climactic to report that the Israeli defence ministry is confirming that an air strike was launched against Syria yesterday. The unexpected part of the news is that the attack was on a shipment of missiles, not a chemical weapons depot:

Israeli officials said the shipment was not of chemical arms, but of “game changing” weapons bound for the Lebanese militant group. The airstrike took place early on Friday, but did not say where it took place.

American officials earlier told the Associated Press of an airstrike. One report had suggested the strike was on a chemical weapons facility.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that Israel would be prepared to take military action if chemical weapons or other arms were to reach Hizbollah.

Lebanon’s army said pairs of Israeli airplanes entered Lebanese airspace on three occasions overnight between Thursday and Friday.

The move will raise tensions in the Middle East and comes amid mounting pressure over the alleged use of chemical weapons by president Bashar Assad’s regime.

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