• The Obama Doctrine: The Audacity of Ignorance

    March 28, 2016 // 11 Comments »

    Obama



    Think what it must be like to be one of America’s allies.


    You enjoy some trade, watch Beyonce and Brad Pitt at the movies, and visit Disneyland on holiday. But then there’s America again at your cubicle, asking again that you join some coalition, get some troops into another wacky American overseas intervention for freedom, or regime change, or to stop another impending genocide only American can see or stop. What can you do? It’s hard to say no knowing what a big bully the U.S. is, but given how poorly the last one worked out, and the one before that, and the one before that, nobody at home is in favor of another round. Still, you’re stuck giving something, so maybe a few special forces, or a couple of airstrikes, as a token…

    And then you get blamed for being a freeloader when things don’t work out, or America loses interest and expected you to pick up the slack. And why not? America has a lot of coalitions and freedom to look after globally, and just can’t take care of everything.



    The Obama Doctrine

    That bit of sarcasm unfortuately seems to describe the “Obama Doctrine,” as laid out in a legacy-killing interview with the president in Atlantic magazine.

    Specifically, Obama was referring to the 2011 conflict in Libya. Coming on the heels of the fading Arab Spring, Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s 34 year stable reign appeared to be weakening. The U.S., after decades of hostility with Libya, had reopened diplomatic relations in 2006. As part of that deal, Qaddafi rid himself of a nascent nuclear program. As unrest, however, spread in 2011, Qaddafi threatened a violent crackdown.

    Obama (all quotes are from Atlantic): “At that point, you’ve got Europe and a number of Gulf countries who despise Qaddafi, or are concerned on a humanitarian basis, who are calling for action. But what has been a habit over the last several decades in these circumstances is people pushing us to act but then showing an unwillingness to put any skin in the game.”

    While there is no doubt many nations expressed concern (who wouldn’t?), it appears only the United States wanted to drive those thoughts into armed conflict. While Obama was allegedly wary of another U.S. military action in the Middle East, his advisors, lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, invoked that magic Washington, DC word “genocide,” claiming Qaddafi was about to “slaughter his own people,” and stopping that was a foreign policy “to-do” item for the United States.

    Obama: “So what I said at that point was, we should act as part of an international coalition. But because this is not at the core of our interests, we need to get a UN mandate; we need Europeans and Gulf countries to be actively involved in the coalition; we will apply the military capabilities that are unique to us, but we expect others to carry their weight.”



    Free Riders

    But, according to Obama, that is where the good news ended.

    Obama: “When I go back and I ask myself what went wrong, there’s room for criticism, because I had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up… [French leader] Sarkozy wanted to trumpet the flights he was making in the air campaign, despite the fact that we had wiped out all the air defenses and essentially set up the entire infrastructure for the intervention.”

    As for the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron soon stopped paying attention, becoming “distracted by a range of other things,” according to Obama. The basic idea was having arranged the intervention in Libya, and having proceeded with a very small coalition that for practical purposes included no Arab nations, it was going to be up to France and the UK to take over the messy part of the operation, which was ill-defined by the U.S. except as “whatever happened next.”

    And when France and Britain did not jump to achieve America’s goals, what was Obama’s characterization of them?

    “Free riders,” he said.



    The Audacity of Ignorance

    What that Obama Doctrine omits is that the coalition, such as it was, was formed to prevent Qaddafi from harming large numbers of Libyans. However, the mission quickly and without any outside mandate morphed into regime change, with the goal now set to kill Qaddafi and replace him with, well, the U.S. would find someone. As could have been easily foreseen given the failure of a similar policy in Iraq, and as subsequent events proved all too clearly in Libya, the result was chaos. Libya is now a failed state, home to its own Islamic State franchise.

    The audacity of the American president to blame even part of that outcome on other nations speaks to dark things in the American character, and American foreign policy, which will continue to plague the world for some time. And while many globally fear a President Trump, they will be advised to recall Hillary Clinton’s leading role in the Libyan disaster as well.

    Washington lives and works in a bubble, of its own making, of its own ignorance.

    Inside that bubble, American goals are deemed, de facto, to be world goals, and coalitions should form like crystals around them. America alone is the arbiter of what “genocides” need or need not be stopped, and at what point the United States should start something, and then back away, and then perhaps return. The American foreign policy establishment never seems to notice that for all the genocides that need stopping, all the evil dictators that need toppling, and regimes that need changing, few if any nations seem to share America’s zeal for military intervention. Few countries seem so committed to bypassing other tools of foreign policy (diplomacy, trade) and jumping to the literal attack. In fact, few countries seem to want to put skin into the game, to use Obama’s expression, perhaps in large part because it is not their game.



    History is Not Generous

    If Libya was an isolated example, history might be more generous to 21st century America.

    But one must look to Afghanistan, where a shell of the original coalition sent to bust up the Taliban now acts to maintain some-sort of American vassal state. Iraq of course is the uber-example, a war to stop another evil dictator (formerly supported by the United States) that changed under its coalition’s nose into creating a whole new nation-state in America’s image. The same is happening in real-time in Syria, where the U.S. State Department still believes a coalition of 62 nations is furthering whatever America’s goal there might be.

    Obama and all of the presidential candidates also keep saying much the same thing about how the Sunnis and Kurds need to “step up” to fight ISIS.

    Standing above them all is the grandest of American coalitions at present, that one that seeks to smite Islamic State, in the many countries it has metastasized into. But funny, one hears little any more about any coalition against al Qaeda. Meh, times change, gotta move on.

    One foreign commentator said the United States has “turned into a nation of idiots, incapable of doing anything except conducting military operations against primitive countries.”

    That, perhaps, is the clearest statement of the Obama Doctrine yet.




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    British Library Won’t Hold Taliban Documents for Researchers Due to Anti-Terror Laws

    September 9, 2015 // 7 Comments »

    reaganmeetstalibanwhitehouse


    It was either Sun Tzu, or Clausewitz, or maybe General Tso who said: “Know Thy Enemy.”

    The advice is valid. Most military schools teach their students to read the enemy’s manifestos, study his propaganda, learn as much about him as possible to better know how to defeat him. During World War II, British soldiers and scholars studied Hitler’s Mein Kampf and other Nazi documents. Martial needs aside, a basic principle of scholars is open access to information, and for libraries, to collect primary source documents while they are still available.

    Yet fear now controls us, not thought.



    The British Library

    A decision by the British Library not to host a huge collection of Taliban-related documents, despite years of close involvement with the project, has added to concerns about Britain’s sweeping anti-terrorism legislation.



    Background

    Over nearly a decade, the researchers behind the Taliban Sources Project have painstakingly collected and translated into English more than a thousand newspapers, magazines, radio broadcasts, military and administrative documents, as well as handwritten poetry by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The group’s aim is to digitize the primary material, shedding light on the Taliban’s organization and the insurgency in Afghanistan. Altogether, the project’s ten-member team translated more than two million words of material.

    The researchers took the project to the British Library (and for those not familiar with that institution, consider it in lay terms on par with the Library of Congress in the United States) in 2012. After first accepting the collection three years ago, the library has now declined to take on the project, saying it had been legally advised it contains material that could be in breach of Britain’s anti-terrorism laws.

    The library recognizes the archive’s research value. But “it was judged that it contained some material which could contravene the Terrorism Act,” it said in a <a href="http://statement“>statement, “which would present restrictions on the library’s ability to provide access to the archive for researchers.”

    The UK Terrorism Act “places specific responsibilities on anyone in Britain who might provide access to terrorist publications,” the statement added, “and the legal advice received jointly by the British Library and other similar institutions advises against making this type of material accessible.”



    Knowing the Taliban

    The Taliban Sources Project focuses on material from 1994 to 2001 that “gives a unique window into the Taliban’s world views, their negotiations with foreign governments, how they viewed history,” said Felix Kuehn, an organizer of the project, adding that the material could help provide a more complete picture about the organization in the run-up to the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan.

    “Our knowledge of the Taliban in the 1990s is dominated by Western media coverage that was highly politicized, in part because information was not easily accessible,” Kuehn said.

    David Anderson, the independent reviewer for Britain’s anti-terrorism laws, said the Terrorism Act was a broad law that could be even more broadly interpreted “by police and lawyers who want to give cautious advice.” Such interpretations could easily impinge on academic freedom, he warned. “If this law were interpreted to prevent researchers from accessing Taliban-related material that would impact their academic work, it would be very regrettable,” he said. “That’s not how academics work.”



    Knowing the Enemy

    The Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 make it an offense “to collect material which could be used by a person committing or preparing for an act of terrorism” and criminalize the circulation of terrorist propaganda. But under the laws, the police must show evidence that the owners intend to use the publication for terrorist purposes, and that they have a reasonable excuse to possess it, Anderson said.

    Know thy enemy? What happens when the enemy is us?



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    State Department Enters 19th Century

    May 31, 2014 // Comments Off on State Department Enters 19th Century

    Traditions are fun, and we all certainly enjoy dressing up at Halloween as Sexy Soccer Mom or Sexy Soccer Dad with Kids in Tow. Good times. When my kids were younger I had great fun dressing up as Santa Claus, sometimes even at Christmas.

    However, in the age of social media, images have assumed a greater significance. So, let’s ask ourselves what these images of State’s ambassadors presenting their credentials in Japan and the UK convey:






    Tradition holds that a newly-appointed ambassador must present his/her “credentials” to the foreign government. I’m not sure what credentials actually are, maybe some sort of leather scroll or parchment thing calligraphed by virgin dwarfs. The process does seem to involve elaborate 19th century doo-dads, and in the case of imperial countries like Japan and the UK, bypassing the elected government and going right to the Emperor and the Queen, respectively.


    The same credential process occurs in the U.S., but as best I can tell does not involve Cinderella carriages and Downton Abbey leftover costumes. Now I know that our intrepid diplomats abroad are mostly following local tradition in these photos, but one wonders if U.S.-Japan relations would indeed descend into Pearl Harbor-like animosity if we said “Hey, this carriage is kinda outside the 21st century e-Diplomacy Pivot thing we’re doing nowadays, plus the whole 19th century imperialist vibe, so maybe this year we’ll take a taxi. Cool?” After all, by tradition, our ambassador does not bow to the Queen because of the American Revolution (this is true), and that has worked out OK with the Brits.


    NEXT: State to consider requirement that all cables must be written in cursive longhand.



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