America Speaks... and Who Cares?
President Obama has long made clear his distaste for fighting wars -- his or anyone else's. He has followed through on his belief in diplomacy not necessarily moored to military power and on his priority issues within the military related to social and group identity issues. Now in his sixth year, the president has almost fully implemented his assumptions through budget cuts. Objective geopolitical circumstances aside, he is spending the “peace dividend” he claims.
Around the edges, the hawks appear to be rising, beginning their assault on the cuts in the most common way -- projecting adversaries and their capabilities, and then strategizing and pricing the appropriate response. Scary reams are being written. Here's a fast and dirty -- and better -- way to understand how powerful the United States is/isn't under President Obama's theory of international relations: Say something and see who cares.
Secretary of State Kerry had serious advice for Vladimir Putin regarding Ukraine. “I don’t think there should be any doubt whatsoever that any kind of military intervention that would violate the sovereign territorial integrity of Ukraine would be a huge -- a grave -- mistake,” Kerry said in a roundtable interview.
Well, Putin didn't think so. Russian troops and ships have entered Crimea, set up an Eastern Ukrainian government attached to Russia, and are harboring deposed President Victor Yanukovich.
President Obama then pronounced himself “deeply concerned,” which is diplo-speak for, “Please, I'm trying not to come down too hard on you, Vlad, but you have to help.” The president explained Putin's interests to him:
Russia has a historic relationship with Ukraine, including cultural and economic ties, and a military facility in Crimea, but any violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interest of Ukraine, Russia, or Europe... It would be a clear violation of Russia’s commitment to respect the independence and sovereignty and borders of Ukraine, and of international laws... it would invite the condemnation of nations around the world... the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.
Putin's was apparently not impressed with the president's assessment of Russian interests. On Saturday, the Upper House of the Russian Parliament specifically authorized the use of Russian troops (post fact) in Ukraine. And Russian warships are visiting Cuba in a demonstration that, although he can sail in our back yard, we are unlikely to be sailing in his.
It should be noted, too, that Iran is sailing naval assets to the Western Atlantic to sit just beyond American territorial water. If they actually get here (they've never sailed that far before), they pose little threat to the United States, although they could provide mostly moral support to Venezuela's increasingly repressive government. The administration declined even to call it a hostile gesture, though the Iranians did, and it portends a future in which Iran might choose to add a missile to its “warship” and be capable of real damage should the United States continue to believe that what happen in international waters off our coast doesn't concern us.
There is more.
The Assad government appears to have retaliated against members of the Syrian opposition that came to Geneva for the U.S.-Russian-UN sponsored “peace talks,” arresting and detaining family members of the delegates. The State Department was totally outraged! State Department spox Jen Psaki said so. “We are outraged,” she said. “We call on the regime to immediately and unconditionally release all those unfairly arrested, including Mahmoud Sabra, brother of Geneva delegation member Mohammed Sabra.” Secretary Kerry was outraged as well, adding, that what Assad “is doing is outrageous, unconscionable, unacceptable, disgraceful, craven, it’s horrendous. And we all know that. Everybody knows that.”
OK, then, Assad may be craven, but he remains unafraid of Ms. Psaki and Secretary Kerry's denunciation.
What about Iraq, where the United States spent its lesser treasure (money) and greater treasure (the blood of its children) in an effort to provide a country that had never before known it with a path to consensual and transparent government (forget democracy). One might think Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would take American interests into account.
One would be wrong.
The State Department has raised “serious concerns” about what it understands to be a $195 million Iraqi arms purchase from Iran. The prime minister’s office would not confirm or deny the alleged deal, but said such an arrangement would be understandable. “We are launching a war against terrorism and we want to win this war. Nothing prevents us from buying arms and ammunition from any party and it’s only ammunition helping us to fight terrorists,” said Maliki spokesman Ali Mussawi.
Reuters reports the deal was signed last November after Maliki visited Washington to request additional arms to face a resurgent al Qaeda threat but returned to Iraq believing the U.S. would delay its response. The State Department defended itself. Spox Psaki said some weapons have been delivered and, “We have worked to approve important military equipment to Iraq through our FMS program, including the recent notification of Apache helicopters.”
For the Iraqis -- under siege in the western provinces -- notification to the U.S. Congress is a far cry from actually helping. And in counter-insurgency warfare, weapons without intelligence are hardly useful, and the U.S. has neither soldiers nor intelligence assets in Iraq with which to help. The fact is that our 2011 departure left Iraq between something (an aggressively engaged Iran) and nothing (the United States' absence). The resulting Iraqi turn to Iran was predictable.
And finally, you know your diplomatic stock has fallen when Mahmoud Abbas -- in the 9th year of a four-year term of office, kleptocratic and without support among his own people -- slaps the Secretary of State around without fear of losing American support. Two headlines this week say it all: Kerry Opens Door to Extended Talks for Israeli-Palestinian Deal (Reuters) and Palestinians Reject U.S. Push for Peace Talks Beyond April (AFP). This is on top of public statements by Abbas and PA spokespeople that Kerry’s plans for a multinational Jordan Valley force, truncating the Palestinian “right of return,” and recognition of Israel as a “Jewish State” will under no circumstances happen, and following Kerry's promotion of a $4 billion “development fund” (bribe) for the PA if it signs onto the deal Kerry has told Abbas would be in his interest.
The president's response to the serial disrespect of Secretary Kerry by Abbas is to invite the Palestinian leader to the White House.
So, to recap: Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Khamenei and President Rouhani, Bashar al-Assad, Nuri al-Maliki, and Mahmoud Abbas have all heard the President of the United States and his chief diplomatic representative, Secretary of State Kerry, tell them what the United States believes is in their interest, carefully hedged with threats of American unhappiness if they don't toe the line we've drawn. But in the absence of American ability to reward friends and punish adversaries, they don't care.
Now, go and build a defense budget.