Tag Archives: Syria

Trump: Even Truthiness Doesn’t Matter

Al ZarqawiThe man in the photo above is the founder of ISIS (Daesh).  And then there’s this from the latest round of Trump0matic Rhetoric:

“In the wide-ranging phone interview (with CNBC), Trump insisted that President Barack Obama “absolutely” founded ISIS. He also discussed economic issues, including regulation and infrastructure spending.

Asked about them, he doubled down and said “[Obama] was the founder of ISIS absolutely, the way he removed our troops. … I call them co-founders,” he added, referring to his Democratic presidential opponent, Hillary Clinton.”

I know full well that correcting Trumpisms is like shoveling sand up hill, but at least we don’t have to reside in the land of utter stupidity and ignorance.  Let’s focus on “the way he removed our troops.” Obama removed our forces based on the SOFA agreed to by George W. Bush.

December 14, 2008:

“It is true that Bush signed an agreement, known as the Status of Forces Agreement, on Dec. 14, 2008, that said: “All the United States Forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than December 31, 2011.”

Condoleezza Rice, who served as Bush’s secretary of state, wrote in her 2011 book, “No Higher Honor,” that Bush did not want to set a deadline “in order to allow conditions on the ground to dictate our decisions.” She wrote that she met with Maliki in August 2008 and secured what she thought was an agreement for a residual force of 40,000 U.S. troops. But she said Maliki soon “reneged” and insisted on “the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the end of 2011.” She said Bush “swallowed hard” and agreed to what she called “suitable language” to do just that.” [FactCheck.org]  (emphasis added)

The remainder of the argument depends on a subjective opinion as to how “hard the Obama Administration tried to renegotiate the SOFA.”  Critics of the withdrawal of combat forces charge that the Administration “didn’t try hard enough.”  However, the insistence of the Maliki government that any agreement would have to be put to the Iraqi Parliament didn’t help matters.  This also leaves open the argument that perhaps the Bush Administration didn’t press the Maliki government hard enough either.

Critics of the US policy in regard to Iraq, and the deployment of troops to that country, are caught arguing “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda,” when there are altogether too many variables in a complex situation to make blanket charges of any kind.

And, while Trump says he will continue to say Obama and Clinton are the “co-founders of ISIS” (I prefer Daesh) the timeline rebuts this presumption.  A brief trip down memory land —

2004: Abu Musab Al Zarqawi establishes Al Qaeda in Iraq.

2006: Zarqawi, killed in a US air strike, is replaced by Abu Ayyub Amasri at the head of AQI. October 15, 2006: Al Masri announces the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq; Sunni tribes begin a campaign to kill AQI members, and AQI is rebranded the Islamic State in Iraq.

In reality, the formation of Daesh goes back a bit further, as is explained here:

“ISIS/IS has its origins in an obscure militant group, Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (JTJ), that was stood up in 2000 by a Jordanian one-time criminal-turned-Islamist named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (AMZ).1 His intent was to fight the Jordanian government, but he failed to gain traction.2 Zarqawi then traveled to Afghanistan to fight on the side of the mujahidin (resistance) in the jihad against the Soviets. Having arrived after their departure, he soon returned to his homeland to fight the well-entrenched Jordanian monarchy. His efforts came to naught, and he eventually returned to Afghanistan, where he ran an Islamic militant training camp near Herat.” [MEPC.org]

And now the plot thickens and becomes more nuanced:

“Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, al-Zarqawi moved into Iraq. There he developed extensive ties with Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam), a Kurdish Islamist group. In March 2003, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq. A brilliant conventional campaign led to the erroneous belief on the part of the George W. Bush administration that Iraq would stabilize and progress towards democracy. By summer 2003, the disgruntled Sunni minority — toppled from power with the downfall of Saddam Hussein — launched a deadly insurgency. It consisted of five distinct groups, four composed largely of Iraqis from the former regime, nationalists, tribal elements and various Islamist fighters. The fifth group was AMZ’s JTJ, consisting of a smattering of Iraqis and many foreign fighters.”  [MEPC.org]

Not that any of this matters to Donald J. Trump.  However, what we do know is that the Trump pronouncements on foreign policy are as vapid and ill informed as his sloganeering on any other topic.  ISIS (Daesh) morphed from a fifth element in the Iraqi insurgency into a major and deadly part of the conflict in the region, but they certainly didn’t find their origin in the Obama Administration.

Those wishing to get a longer, more historical look at the issues surrounding the current conflict in the Middle East may want to start with David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, and Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed The World.  Also recommended is Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. These are three notable books which will give a person something to do besides listen to Trump’s simplistic sloganeering and sloppy irrationality.

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3 Reasons to Ignore Beltway Blather about ISIL

White House Press Room Senator Lindsey Graham (R-Fainting Couch) wants a muscular U.S. policy against ISIL before we’re all murdered in our beds.  However, before we get all pumped up from watching cable news and beltway media blathering it might be a nice exercise to know more pesky details about the situation, especially with regard to ISIL held territory in Syria and Iraq.

#1.  Beltway blathering demonstrates little understanding of the situation inside the area under consideration.  The White House Press corps, which is evidently so shallow they can’t concentrate on major policy statements if the President or speaker is wearing a suit made of any fabric not dark gray or dark blue, persists in analyzing the “optics” or “atmospherics” surrounding such statements without listening to what is being said.  Were they better informed about the political and military situation their opinion pieces would be significantly improved.  Here’s an example:

During the White House press briefing on September 12, the Press Secretary fielded two questions concerning the relatively quiet response from NATO ally Turkey on joining the alliance against ISIS (L).  After Mr. Earnest offered a very diplomatic explanation the second questions was:

But any disappointment that particularly Turkey, a NATO member, would not sign on to something like this?” As if the explanation required more explication.  It did, but had the questioner a bit more background it would have been understood why the Turks are reticent and the White House Press Secretary more diplomatic.  Here’s what the press missed —

On June 11 ISIS (L) captured Mosul, and in the process of doing so attacked the Turkish consulate in that city, taking 79-80 hostages. [WSJ] As of September 1, 2014 the Foreign Ministry of Turkey sought to alleviate concerns about the health and well being of the hostages expressed by some of their family members and sources in the Turkish press. “Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc talked on the latest developments regarding the Turkish hostages held by ISIS militants, claiming they were alive, their location was known and that contact with them was being maintained.”  The Ministry went one step further — “The accuracy and reliability of information in respect to the source is necessary,” Bilgic said. “Since the first day our staff were taken hostage, our government has been conducting extremely sensitive work through all relevant institutions.”

It doesn’t take too much analysis to translate that statement as “We are working really hard with anyone who will cooperate to insure that our people from the Mosul Consulate are where we’ve been told they are, and are being treated humanely.”  After the grisly scenes of what has happened thus far to two American citizens and one British citizen, it is no wonder the Turks are less than enthusiastic about wanting to discuss their contributions to the “war on ISIS(L).”

So, the ill-informed member of the Press Corps asked a redundant and undiplomatic question, inferring that the Turks are not enthusiastic about defeating the ISIS(L) forces – perhaps a better question would have been something like – What are the allied nations doing to assist the Turks retrieve their consulate personnel?

#2The U.S. beltway media too often characterizes elements in complicated situations in simplistic terms.  Nothing illustrates this quite so well as in the case of the Syrian opposition.  There must be good guys and bad guys, and the U.S. should team up with the good guys!  However, what do we do when the coalitions and networks aren’t so conveniently classified? The Free Syrian Army, which some think we should arm, is actually a network of about eight large battalions and many smaller independent groups which are united in their opposition to the Assad Regime. [LATimes]

Consider for a moment the complications of arming the FSA, as described by the GulfNews organization:

“…equipment was in short supply and could not possibly match what the Syrian army had, or received from Iran and Russia. Moreover, Washington demurred when Riyadh readied shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank launchers, and vetoed such transfers. The FSA’s fighting hands were thus tied allegedly because Western powers were not sure if some of these lethal weapons would fall under extremist control. In time, sophisticated American-made anti-tank missiles reached the FSA, though Al Nusra and, more recently, Isil boasted more advanced weapons. Timidity towards the FSA, ostensibly because its leaders maintained correct ties with moderate Islamist factions, translated in an entirely different outlook for Syria.”

Notice the policy of the Iranian government in this brief description, it is aligned with the Assad Regime (Alawite)  against the rebels in Syria – but aligned with the anti-ISIS(L) (Shia)  forces in Iraq.  Also, remember that the U.S. is trying to negotiate an agreement with Iran concerning its capacity to manufacture nuclear weaponry [Reuters] and actions which align with Iran’s interests in Iraq may promote this project, but those not aligned with Iran’s interests in Syria could derail the negotiating process.  In this instance it’s not so easy to shuffle groups into the Good Guys, Bad Guys categories.

#3The D.C. media are seemingly eager to critique policy without much background, especially as it pertains to the Arab states.  Witness this question from the September 12th briefing:

“One is on the Arab states.  They said that they would be prepared to do their share, and they talk about “as appropriate, joining in many aspects.”  But this language is a little amorphous.  It’s hard to get your hands around it.  What are they actually saying that they would do, besides Saudi Arabia hosting the Syrian rebels for training?  Will they provide troops, for example?”

The Saudis have a problem.  In August 2014 they donated $100 million to the United Nations to fund a counter terrorism agency, but they rejected a rotating seat on the UN Security Council.  Why the half in, half out posture? “Amorphous” is simply another way of saying we have a really sticky issue here and we aren’t ready to crawl out on a branch.  Ed Husain, writing for the New York Times explains:

“This half-in, half-out posture of the Saudi kingdom is a reflection of its inner paralysis in dealing with Sunni Islamist radicalism: It wants to stop violence, but will not address the Salafism that helps justify it.

Let’s be clear: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram, the Shabab and others are all violent Sunni Salafi groupings. For five decades, Saudi Arabia has been the official sponsor of Sunni Salafism across the globe.”

While the reporter might have wanted the Press Secretary to answer for the Saudi government, or explain its position, the question would be better addressed directly to the Saudi government itself.   The issue has profound implications for the Saudi government – and has tentacles reaching back to the 1744 treaty or Holy Alliance:

“Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of “Wahhabism,” an austere form of Islam, arrives in the central Arabian state of Najd in 1744 preaching a return to “pure” Islam. He seeks protection from the local emir, Muhammad ibn Saud, head of the Al Saud tribal family, and they cut a deal. The Al Saud will endorse al-Wahhab’s austere form of Islam and in return, the Al Saud will get political legitimacy and regular tithes from al-Wahhab’s followers. The religious-political alliance that al-Wahhab and Saud forge endures to this day in Saudi Arabia.” [Frontline]

Thus the Saudis have a 270 year old agreement with ultra-conservative elements in Islam, who represent perhaps 3% of the total number of Muslims world wide, and which produces an ultra-conservative government with the means and intent to spread the ultra-conservative message – to ISIS(L) and other religious fanatics.  And we wonder why the response from the Saudis is “amorphous?

Drafting this post took approximately one hour and forty minutes, during which reporting from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, one D.C. press briefing, and an article from the Gulf News were perused.   Unfortunately, the White House press corps seems not to have taken the time to accumulate background information, or if some members did, they weren’t the ones who were called upon.  And thus we get the Parsing Game, in which sentences are analyzed for political meaning without much attention paid to the underlying policy; followed by endless speculation about the meaning of utterances without context. 

Instead of enhancing our understanding of intricate issues with a myriad of policy options, the press corps is trying to offer us the perfect news story, one with drama (preferably bloody), a hint of mystery, and the capacity for endless speculation.  Sometimes the WH Press Room might as well be empty.

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Pulling Representative Heck Slowly Toward Understanding Foreign Policy

SpaghettiRepresentative Joe Heck (R-NV3) is confused about the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.  “I don’t think we have a coherent foreign policy, and that’s part of the problem,” Heck said. “We have not exercised the level of leadership around the globe as we have over the past 20 years. … The world looks toward somebody to kind of set the example. And I don’t think we’ve been setting the example that we have set previously.” [LVRJ]

First there’s a big difference between something which is incoherent and something with which there is disagreement.  The limited engagement portion of what’s lumped together as Obama Doctrine isn’t too difficult to comprehend.  Unilateral force will be used if there is a direct threat to the United States.  That wasn’t too hard, was it?

Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.  If force is to be used, it should be in a very precise way.  [FP] Also not all that hard to understand.  In case Representative Heck is still confused, let’s apply some examples.

ISIL: A direct threat to Americans or American interests. IS attacks threatening Americans and American interests in Iraq, especially in the vicinity of Erbil in Kurdish controlled areas presented a direct threat to Americans in the region.  Response? Air strikes.  So far so good.  IS momentum in the area has been blunted and American lives and interests protected.  Humanitarian aid and the rearming of the Peshmerga forces associated with the mission was augmented by efforts from the British, the French, and the Germans.  Multilateral, targeted, minimal force applied to secure desired results.  What’s confusing about that?  But, what of indirect threats?

Libya:  What should be done in cases of threats to global security? Once again, we find the Administration employing a multilateral approach. In 2011 an effort by the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, and Great Britain (in a coalition ultimately including 19 nations)  coordinated a campaign of air strikes, naval blockades, no-fly zones, and logistical assistance to Libyan rebels. It worked.

Syria: The civil war in Syria presents a more complicated problem for nations which perceive the situation as a threat to global security.  The Assad government has close ties to Russia, and the rebel groups range from small inexperienced moderate elements, to criminal gangs, to extremist groups, to the really extremist groups like ISIS.  Coalitions, alliances, and coterminous realignments and the creation of new coalitions, make this a very fluid situation.  Problem One was to get the stockpiles of chemical weapons out of the game.  Mission accomplished. Last month a Danish ship delivered the last 600 metric tons of chemical weapons to a U.S. ship (Cape Ray) at an Italian port, where the chemicals will be destroyed. [CNN] Multilateral. Minimal use of force (a show of force at one point) with a maximum use of diplomacy, combined with a specifically focused mission.

Calls for arming the anti-Assad rebels is a simplistic response to a complicated problem.  In December 2013 the BBC published something of a roster of Syrian rebel forces for those wishing to keep track of the players.  There’s a coalition now called the Supreme Council of the Free Syrian Army, the good news is that this is a relatively moderate group, but the bad news is that it is composed of some 30 different militias which retain their own operational independence, command structures, and agendas. In short it is a very loosely joined network of independent brigades. Then there is the Islamic Front, another coalition of about seven groups which wants to topple the Assad government and devise an Islamic state.  This is not to be confused with the Al Qaeda or jihadist groups, such as the Al Nusra Front, and the Islamic State.  But wait, we haven’t listed the independent groups such as the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, Asala wa al-Tanmiya Front, or the group often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, the Durou al-Thawra Commission.

Now, just who is it that the U.S. might want to arm?  And by the way, Syria is about 64% Sunni, about 20% of whom are Kurds, Turkomans, Circassians, and Palestinians.  The Shia represent most of the other Muslims in Syria, and are divided into three groups: Twelvers, Ismailis, and Alawis.  And then there are the recently discovered by the foreign press —  Yazidis.

Now Representative Heck might want to ask himself: Does he prefer a policy which keeps U.S. interests in mind in Syria by making maximum use of diplomatic multilateral efforts and a minimal infusion of force; or would he prefer getting the U.S. mired in another swampy situation in the Middle East?

If one’s idea of a coherent foreign policy is one of moving in with a maximum use of unilateral force — and with minimal consideration of the consequences — then the Obama Administrations doctrine isn’t going to meet with one’s approval. And, that’s the question which needs to be answered by Representative Heck — If you don’t like a mission specific use of force, applied in conjunction with a multilateral diplomatic and military effort, then what do you want?

The bellicose blustering of the Bush Administration sounded coherent, but ultimately proved to produce incoherent results.  Witness our next example: Iraq.

Iraq: A nation created in the wake of World War I, with significant religious and political internal differences, formerly governed by an intransigent and despicable (albeit secular) dictator, crumbles after Sunni populations in the north and west perceive the Shiite government in the south (Baghdad/Basra) to be ignoring or damaging their interests. Kurdish populations in the northeast see the Shiite government as inimical to their interests, and the compliment is returned by the southern Shia.

The removal of ISF military leaders who are Sunni or former Baathists by the Maliki government creates a security force (army) of questionable utility.  The question is answered as the Iraqis try to form a new government in July-August 2014, and  ISIL moves from Syria into ‘friendly’ territory around Mosul.  ISIL (IS) attracts support from local Sunni groups alienated by the Maliki government, and radicals from surrounding territories.

The fractures in the Iraqi political system, fully identified in a policy review with General Odierno in 2010, are visible today. [FP]  Our goals as set forth in 2010-2011 are to (1) encourage reconciliation, (2) help develop a professional civil service, (3) promote a healthy relationship between the parliament and the executive, and (4) to support the reintegration of refugees and displaced persons.  [FP]

Recent actions by the Obama Administration have sought to get the Yazidis to safety (a multinational effort), re-arm and supply the Peshmerga (a multinational effort), and get the Maliki government in the rear view mirror in order to restore the government and the Iraq Security Force into working order.  Is this too complex for Representative Heck to ponder?

How about we set an example of using multinational cooperation to  diminish threats to global security by applying the least force appropriate in the most multilateral format possible?  Is that too difficult to understand?

Carry a Big Bull Horn and Do What With It?

But wait, Representative Heck’s apprehensions go even further:

“Heck said a lack of follow-through on U.S. threats makes America appear weak. He didn’t cite Syria, but President Bashar al-Assad suffered no serious repercussions for using chemical weapons against his own people.

“Our adversaries need to know that if they do X, then the U.S. is going to do Y,” Heck said. “And there has not been that consistency. That’s why you see actors, not only in the Middle East, but also Russia and China, push the limits.”  [LVRJ]

Breathe.  Did Representative Heck miss the part where the Danish ship met the U.S. ship in the Italian harbor — and Assad doesn’t have his chemical weapons anymore? The serious repercussion is that Assad can’t use his chemical weapons on his own people anymore because he doesn’t have them.  He’s down to barrel bombs.

Breathe, and let the breath condense on the crystal ball Representative Heck seems to have about the intentions and actions of foreign parties. If we tell people we’ll do Y if they do X — What are X and Y?

Let’s explore some of the implications of Representative Heck’s simple formula, in the application of the administration’s doctrine: Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Putin moves against Ukraine.  There is no direct threat to the United States therefore we will address the threat multilaterally and not necessarily with maximum (military) force.  Multilateral action is messy, can be slow, doesn’t make for dramatic headlines, and certainly isn’t conducive to the bellicose bluster approach. However, in this instance it’s a far better approach.

For example, the U.S. does about $160 million in trade with Ukraine, [Cen] by contrast Germany’s trade with Ukraine is estimated at $10 billion. [Siemens pdf] If economic interests are placed in the “threat” category then Germany has far more at stake in the problems between Ukraine and Russia than we do.  So do China, Belarus, Poland, Turkey, Italy, and Hungary. [Bloomberg]

But, but, but, sputter the critics, Putin moved into Crimea and we didn’t do anything.  Come to think of it, neither did the Ukrainians — possibly remembering Crimea was attached to Ukraine in 1954 as a matter of Soviet administrative convenience, and when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 Crimea negotiated terms which allowed it to be an autonomous republic. [AJAM]

While the Russians (Putin) continue to threaten interference with Ukrainian sovereignty, the latest efforts have been rebuffed.  The Russians are putting out the story that the destruction of an armored column is a fantasy — the Ukrainians have another version of events, one in which they destroyed at least half of it. [HuffPo] Meanwhile, the notion of sending arms to Ukraine sounds a bit like carrying coal to Newcastle — at one point Ukraine exported arms to Russia, included in a total of $1.3 billion in arms sales each year. [Bloomberg]

Perhaps there’s not enough drama in the careful ratcheting up of economic sanctions to cool the blood of those who, like Representative Heck, are unable to comprehend the current foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration?  However, it’s not like the Russians didn’t get some warnings as the sanctions were slowly increased until they started to hurt Russians in their grocery stores. [USAT]  Yes, Mr. Putin, if you continue to threaten (X) Ukraine, the western nations will (Y) hit you in the grocery baskets.  Worse still for Mr. Putin’s plans, the Germans, who have taken their own economic interests into consideration during the maneuvering, are now taking a much stiffer stance. [NYT]

Now, what part of Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance. isn’t clear?

China? It’s difficult to tell what Representative Heck might be talking about, other than a generalized appeal to the old Yellow Peril line of jingoism.  However, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he knows we’re monitoring what is going on between the Philippines, Vietnam and the Chinese regarding the South China Sea. [Reuters] And, that’s what we’re doing — monitoring to see if there has been or will be a de-escalation of tempers in that region.  We will be working with Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China to resolve differences — meaning we will adopt the position that Indirect threats will be met multilaterally and not necessarily with the use of maximum force in each instance.

Perhaps Representative Heck does understand that the Obama Administration will meet indirect threats with multilateral efforts and not apply the use of maximum force in each instance — then what is the substance of his criticism?  We don’t “sound” strong enough? What does that mean? We don’t “look” strong enough? What does that mean?

Representative Heck may be indulging in theater criticism — should the President’s voice have been louder? Deeper? Should the wording of policy statements have been more aggressive? Should aggressively worded policy statements be issued no matter what our friends and allies may say?  He may assert he doesn’t agree with the foreign policy direction of the Obama Administration, but surely he can’t mean he doesn’t understand it.

Never one to be considered a softy, Gen. George Patton offered this pithy bit of advice on leadership:

“You young lieutenants have to realize that your platoon is like a piece of spaghetti. You can’t push it. You’ve got to get out in front and pull it.”

President Obama seems to have received and understood that message, Representative Heck must still be working on it. Pull too hard on spaghetti and it breaks.

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From AQI to the Islamic State: A Graphic

ISI origins

Source material: The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Council on Foreign Relations. International Crisis Group, Iraq: Falluja’s Faustian Bargain, April 2014. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Al Qaeda in Iraq. (pdf) Visual mapping: What Does ISIS control? New York Times, updated August 6, 2014.

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Keeping Score When It’s Not A Game

Horse Race GateCongress isn’t the only Washington, D.C. institution that’s off the rails, add the Beltway Media to the mix.  Consider the coverage of the face off over Syrian weapons:

“So far, no American bombs have been dropped on Syria, not one American soldier has died in fighting there, and no Syrian civilians have been killed by U.S. forces. But that hasn’t stopped the chattering class from eviscerating Obama, often with a mocking and condescending tone. Deeply invested in the Obama’s-stumbling storyline that was attached to the president’s initial call for bombing strikes, pundits and reporters failed (or refused) to adjust as the facts shifted and the crisis steered toward a diplomatic resolution.

The Syria coverage represents a clear case of the press adopting style over substance, as well as channeling Republican spin. Of treating foreign policy as if it were a domestic political campaign and insisting that a story unfolding half-a-world away was really all about Obama and how it affected (and/or damaged) his political fortunes. It was also coverage that often lacked nuance and context, and that refused to allow diplomatic events unfold without minute-by-minute surveys of the domestic winners and losers.”  [MMFA]

And therein lies the problem — the situation with regard to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons isn’t essentially part of a domestic political campaign — it IS a foreign policy issue.

Those who wanted background information and now seek to keep up with the current negotiations are better served by visiting the BBC Syria Profile,  KQED prvides “Six Excellent Resources,” on the Syrian situation — no Washington pundits included.

Consider the current conflict between the House Republicans and the threat to shut down the federal government.   There is some excellent background information available — just don’t wait to hear about it from the Beltway Press.   Better  background information is available from the Congressional Research Service, which published “CRS Report for Congress Prepared for Members and Committees of Congress Shutdown of the Federal Government: Causes, Processes, and Effects,” August 2013. (pdf) The CRS also created a report, “Government Shutdown: Operations of the Department of Defense During a Lapse in Appropriations,” in April 2011. (pdf)   Looking at the 2011 budget battle/shutdown threat, Business Week compiled, “How a Federal Shutdown Could Affect Americans,” in February 2011.

One of the more depressing aspects of this coverage is that some of the major news outlets have, in fact, published summarized information pieces about the economic impacts of a government shutdown — to be evidently ignored by their own pundits.  There was this prescient piece in the Atlantic,  April 7, 2011.  CNN Money published this guide on September 16, 2013.

However,  the Chatterati persists in reporting the clash between the Democrats and the Republicans, and the Republicans and the Republicans as if the economic impacts of this brinkmanship were tangential.  “Oh, by the way, if you want your question answered by a person in the USDA office — good luck. Or, if you want to find out about the status of your small business loan application — better be prepared to wait.   Do you have a contract to provide goods or services to any agency of the federal government?  Put that on hold please.”

But, but, but… sputter the talking heads on my TV screen… What about the impact on the 2014 elections?  Having purchased the Horse Race Reportage template  bit, bridle, halter, saddle, blanket and all, the pundits are trapped riding their only topic — election results.

“Well, yes, that does make things challenging. President Obama has to lead, but not too much, and not in a way that may make his rivals feel uncomfortable. He has to be hands-on and hands-off, preferably at the same time. He should use the so-called “bully pulpit,” but not in a way that connects the presidency to any specific issue Republicans may need to vote on.

And it’s against this backdrop that a few too many pundits wonder aloud why the president doesn’t overcome Republicans’ refusal to compromise by “leading” more. Many more suggested “schmoozing” would alleviate GOP intransigence.

But if Republicans are going to balk whether Obama engages or not, the advice seems misplaced.” [Benen]

The Chatterati persist in submerging foreign policy, economic issues, and social issues under the restrictive confines of “all things are politics” categorization.  It’s tantamount to “keeping score when there’s no game.”

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The Story of Six Warships

USS San AntonioThe full transcript of the President’s speech on the Syrian issue can be found here, and here.   The video can be found here.  The reactions, predictably run from precise to persiflage.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca): “As the Obama administration continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution, the president justly made clear tonight that the threat of military action remains on the table as we continue to work to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.” — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.”  [ABC]

Pelosi has been listening.  Note the phrasing, such as “continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution,” and “the threat of military action.”

When the former House Speaker used the phrase “continues to pursue a diplomatic resolution,” she was precisely summarizing U.S. diplomatic transactions with the Russians vis a vis their client state, Syria.  Business Insider followed the plot:

“Our goal from the beginning has been to secure the chemical weapons stockpile in Syria,” a senior administration official insisted.

The announcement by the Russians was the result of months of meetings and conversations between Presidents Obama and (Vladimir) Putin, and Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lavrov, about the role Russia could play in securing chemical weapons,” the official told AFP, asking to remain anonymous.

The idea was first discussed at a G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, a year ago by Obama and Putin, and has been raised in subsequent meetings “though agreement could not be reached,” the official said.

Kerry sought to flesh it out during a trip to Moscow in May, when he discussed with Lavrov “replicating the potential model of Libya’s nuclear program which in 2003 was removed under an international agreement.” (emphasis added)

The  diplomatic discussion concerning the control of Syrian chemical weapons has been a plot point since the G20 Summit on June 17, 2012.   The former Speaker is also on point with the phrase: “threat of military action.”

Notice that the topic of  options available for the control of Syrian WMD/Chemical weapons stockpiles has been ongoing since June 17, 2012, so why did Secretary of State Kerry’s comments, and publicizing of the topic draw such an immediate and positive response from the Russians?

A former Secretary of State’s observations shed some light on this.  Our previous Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton stated:

“It is very important to note that this discussion that has taken hold today about potential international control over Syria’s stockpiles, only could take place in the context of a credible military threat by the United States to keep pressure on the Syrian government as well as those supporting Syria, like Russia.” [Atlantic] (emphasis added)

In short, Secretary Kerry couldn’t reasonably expect the Russians to approve any proposals for external control of Syrian regime chemical and biological weapons without a statement by the U.S. President that he was perfectly willing to use force — if necessary — to curtail their use.    The Secretary now quotes Samuel Johnson, “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”  The crux of the matter is that the U.S. has tried since June 2012 to impress upon the Russians the necessity of curtailing their client state’s use of chemical weapons — until the U.S.S. San Antonio and the U.S.S. Stout, Mahan, Ramage, Barry, and Graveley were parked in the neighborhood [GR.ca] the Russians had ignored these proposals.

Thus what “sounded” like a gaffe on June 9, 2013 was simply merely the publication of an American proposal, under quiet discussion for the previous year,  made more palatable to the Russian government by the presence of a “creditable threat” as personified by the six warships. Had Secretary Kerry made the proposals public before the arrival of the six warships the Russians could have made public their opposition to external control of Syrian chemical weapons without fear of much reaction.  The six warships made the point — the U.S. is very very serious about this option.

Congratulations to House Minority Leader Pelosi for keeping the plot straight, and for realizing that timing is everything.  First the negotiations, then the credible threat, then the publication of the proposal, and then the positive reaction.

RNC Chair Reince Priebus didn’t follow the plot: “The administration’s handling of the U.S. response to Syria has been so haphazard it’s disappointed even the president’s most ardent supporters. This rudderless diplomacy has embarrassed America on the world stage.” — Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus.” [ABC]

Haphazard? Priebus may be good at following talking points, but he missed the sequence on this one.  “Rudderless?” It should be obvious at this point the U.S. had been proposing the external control option from the 2012 G20 to the 2013 G20 — the difference being those six warships serving as exclamation points made the option much more attainable by the 2013 session.   The rudders of those six warships weren’t guiding the vessels along a vacation route, there was a reason for their destination, and had been since June 17, 2012.

“Embarrassed?”  Only if one adopts Vladimir Putin as the ultimate negotiator, which the conservatives appear to be doing.  Did Putin “save the President’s face?” Or, come to the “Diplomatic Rescue?” [MMFAThese assertions work only if one ignores the initial positions of the two powers.  The U.S. wanted control over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in concordance with the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1993 CWC.  The Russians didn’t.   When one side adopts the position of the opponent during diplomatic negotiations that is generally conceded to be a Win.

There is still room for debate about the appropriate use of force to be deployed or applied by the United States. There is still room for debate concerning the efficacy of limited military engagement. There is still room for discussion about the nature of American interests in the region.  What should no longer be debatable is the consistency of Obama Administration policy on the use of chemical weapons.

Congress may choose to allow the Administration the rope (military option) to form the noose threatening the Russians and their client state in Syria — or it can opt to remove this tool from the diplomatic shed.  The question remains: How focused will the Russians be on a diplomatic solution  without those six warships deployed and fully ready to act?

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Recommended Reading: Syria and Silliness

Wheat ChaffThere is some rather insightful and serious thinking about the situation in Syria — as well as some of the sillier drivel ever put in print and pixels.

The Chaff

#1. Any article droning (pun intended) on about the internal political implications of the President’s proposal for limited military responses to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and the potential actions which might be taken by the House of Representatives.  Add to this category any article which weighs in on the hypothetical political results of actions taken on one side or the other.   Would the President “lose” something? “Win something?”  Would Republican leadership in the House “win” or “lose?”  Drivel.   Worse still, this is lazy drivel.  Heaven forefend those covering the issues would inform themselves about the nuances of the subject, the priorities of the various actors and regional interests, and the complicated diplomacy required to find a sustainable resolution?

#2. Any article or post playing the blame game. Finger-pointing is also lazy reportage and analysis.  It requires absolutely zero intellectual effort to sling ad hominem attacks back and forth across the complex terrain.

The Wheat

There are some far more thoughtful summations of opinions, and Nicholas Kristoff’s “Pulling the Curtain Back on Syria,” in the New York Times.   He has also written “The Right Questions on Syria,” also in the Times.   Kristoff supports limited military intervention in the situation, and presents it as the least worst option.

Richard Price, writing for Foreign Affairs, argues that military intervention is not required and offers his analysis to substantiate his position.   For a longer, and more in depth discussion of the military issues associated with the conflict in Syria, download Kenneth Pollack’s “The Military Dynamics of the Syrian Conflict,” from the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

James Fallows opines about “The Best Result from Congress: A No Vote,” in his piece for the Atlantic.  Fallows opposes military intervention and specifies his reasons for his decision.  The editors of The Nation magazine offer a similar piece in “Standing Up To The Hawks in Congress.”   Another perspective is on offer from Robert Kuttner writing in the American Prospect”s “Obama punts to Congress — and scores.”

Shibley Telhami looks at the question of “credibility,” and its relation to the foreign policy issues associated with Syria in “Questioning U.S. Credibility with Syria,” in which he contends that this focus blurs the lines between vital and non-vital interests.

Interests and regional issues are also discussed in Jayshree Bajoria, and Robert McMahon’s “The Dilemma of Humanitarian Intervention,” writing for the Council on Foreign Relations.

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