Gordon Campbell on Obama’s major foreign policy speech today on the Islamic State
For the Syrian people, the next ten years offers them two really unpleasant choices. They can be slaughtered by the forces of the Islamic State, or take their chances with another decade of the murderous stalemate into which the Syrian civil war has now descended. That’s the stark backdrop for this afternoon’s speech by US President Barack Obama. The US is not offering anyone victory, or peace. At best, Obama is trying to use American airpower and the assistance of regional allies with a self-interested stake in the outcome (ie Turkey and Saudi Arabia) to restore the conditions on the Syrian battlefield to a point where the current bloody stalemate can be perpetuated for years to come. In the process, Obama has to apply significant US military force within Syria against the IS rebels, yet without giving the impression that the US and the Saudis are propping up the Assad regime.
Thus, the code that Obama will use today will refer to the need to arm and train those phantom “Syrian moderates.” Such people theoretically exist – they’re a bit like “Act Party moderates” in that respect– but they’re more at home talking to US officials in some air-conditioned airport lounge in Dubai, than in actually showing up on the Syrian battlefield. For the past 18 months the effective fighters against Assad have been the extremist groups that the US actively abhors : Islamic State (very bad) Jabhat al-Nusra ( pretty bad, linked to al-Qaeda, kidnapped those Fijian soldiers recently) and Ahrar-al-Sham, a fundamentalist group financed by Qatar and Turkey in the past, and a useful bridge between the real hardliners and the remnants of the moderate groups to which the West has lent its support in the past.
Unfortunately, if this is what Obama was optimistically referring to as “ moderates” when he started drafting his speech a few days ago, they no longer exist. On Tuesday, the entire leadership of Ahrar al-Shahm was wiped out in a bomb blast.
[Ahrar al-Shahm] was, in short, the missing link between radical Salafi-jihadism and the type of mainstream and Syrian nationalism-infused Islamists that Western and Gulf state powers preferred to work with—a powerful “swing voter” in the struggle over the ideological direction of Syria’s insurgency.
So if anything the militarily effective “moderates” are a shrinking presence on the Syrian battlefield, even as Obama tries to talk them up. The crucial content of his speech today will be how he proposes to manage the US military intervention on the Syrian side of the border – something that Obama’s own chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has publicly said is essential, if the Islamic State is to be defeated. Presumably, the airstrikes on the Iraqi side of the now non-existent border will continue, and so will the arming and training of Kurdish peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan. But within Syria? That will be very difficult. There will denials of support for the Assad regime. There will be talk of arming and training those phantom Syrian moderates.
Even airstrikes within Syria – if the US goes that far – will not be enough, not against an IS insurgency readily able to disperse, and regroup. The real heavy lifting (financially, militarily) will have to be done by the regional countries that have an immediate stake in the outcome. Turkey for instance, cannot afford to see Iraqi Kurdistan over-run by IS, and then have Kurdish fighters making Turkey their new home base. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia – which funded and launched both the Islamic State and al Qaeda – also has its own survival needs to consider. Saudi Arabia will have to bring its monsters back under control, even if that means lending de facto support to its arch-enemy Assad. All up, this afternoon’s speech will be the most important foreign policy speech of the Obama presidency. Lets hope that it contains something more substantial than offering military aid to phantoms.
Obama in Winter. A few days ago in the New Yorker the magazine’s editor David Remnick discussed just how wan and world weary the 44th US President has become of late.
After six years in office, Obama broadcasts his world-weariness with wan gestures and pauses, with loose moments in the White House press room. The world has stubbornly denied him his ambition to transcend its cruelties, pivot smartly to the East, and “do some nation-building here at home.” Obama’s halting cool at the lectern now reads too often as weakness, and when he protests against the charges of weakness he can seem just tired. As the Middle East disintegrates and a vengeful cynic in the Kremlin invades his neighbor, Obama has offered no full and clarifying foreign-policy vision.
Even so, Remnick goes to to argue that Obama’s foreign policy style does have its merits, and even its occasional victories.
Obama does himself no favors with his periodic slumbers, his indisciplines of conception and rhetoric. He and his aides take too much comfort in their sense of being misunderstood and stymied. Their mistakes are not few….
Yet it is a mistake, as well, to dismiss caution as weakness, to react to the medieval executions and depredations of ISIS and the adventurism of Vladimir Putin by mocking the very idea of strategic calculation. In foreign policy, there are sins of commission (Vietnam, Iraq) and there are sins of omission (Bosnia, Rwanda). History may find Obama guilty of both, but he has never been incapable of using American leverage and power. Even as he was being mocked as feckless last week, he ordered an air strike in Somalia successfully targeting Ahmed Abdi Godane, the commander of the militant group al-Shabaab. Although American interests, tightly conceived, may not be much implicated in Ukraine, Obama has taken the lead in creating a Western bloc that has imposed intensifying sanctions against Putin’s regime. Putin would not be talking about a ceasefire otherwise. Last week, at the NATO summit, in Wales, Obama also assembled a coalition that would take on ISIS and provide a model for an international response to extremist groups.
This is not a foreign policy that offers the satisfactions of self-expression; it lacks the snarl and the swagger that Obama’s domestic rivals yearn for. But, halfway through this President’s second term, negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have, at last, a realistic chance for success. Russia’s recent aggressions in eastern Ukraine may end in an uneasy truce. The gains have been un-showy and incremental. But when your aim is to conduct a responsive and responsible foreign policy, the avoidance of stupid things is often the avoidance of bloodshed and unforeseen strife. History suggests that it is not a mantra to be derided or dismissed.
With that in mind, here’s a song for the virtues of keeping your composure even when you’re feeling tired and emotional. Keep your dignity…. and buddy, stay off that wine.