"Don't Do Stupid Stuff" Doesn't Cut It

Thursday, August 14, 2014

It's nice to hear President Obama and Mrs. Clinton had a "huggable" moment on Martha's Vineyard last night.  But making up is hard to do when the truth hurts.

Say what you will about Mrs. Clinton's spot-on criticism of President Obama's faltering foreign policy -- it reflects widespread bipartisan disapproval that under Obama the ship of state is listing badly in international waters.

When a whopping 66 percent (an aggregate of three national polls) of the American people do not approve of a president's foreign policy, something is awfully wrong with  1) the policy;  2) the selling of the policy; 3) the staffers formulating the policy.  Betting on the remaining 34 percent who approve -- the isolationist fringes of both parties -- represents a dangerous sliver on which to bank a national security legacy.

Yet it seems the White House caters to that fringe element of the electorate, his staff asserting the rest of the world just doesn't appreciate or understand Obama's stewardship.  But that's not a foreign policy drowning in misunderstanding -- that's a foreign policy just drowning.  "Not doing stupid stuff" is shoddy Noble Peace Prize material -- and the public senses it.

Obama and his national security team forget (or more likely don't seem to care) that unless they urgently correct course they will bequeath the ballast of a tarnished national security legacy that will haunt the Democratic Party for years to come.  Recall it took over a decade for the Democratic Party to cure itself of Jimmy Carter's foreign policy hangover when Bill Clinton established such an acclaimed and respected foreign policy that it earned him such high marks at home and abroad and is one of the thousand reasons he is so admired.    

True, the world is full of horrific images and heartbreaking stories -- from Ukraine, Gaza, West Africa, and Mt. Sinjar.  Watching international news is painful.  And as Obama correctly points out, the U.S. cannot fix every dire mess. No nation can do it alone.  But forging "coalitions of the willing" is not this White House's default position <em>before</em> a crisis may require boots on the ground (as long it is foreign boots, of course).  Moreover, Republicans have not cut Obama a break -- the more Obama opposes "boots on the ground" the more "boots on the ground" they demand.

But Obama is selling the public short -- even if they scorn more foreign military adventures, they do expect a president to lead with conviction and resolve, and not be seen like he is always late for the train.  Americans know sometimes boots have to be on the ground to fulfill limited missions and protect the homeland.  There were boots on the ground last night on Mt. Sinjar rescuing terrified Yazidi refugees.  There are over 900 boots on the ground in Iraq, and counting.  Americans see ISIS as a growing threat to allies in the Middle East and to the homeland.  It is attacking Lebanon and now Jordan.  They know that genocide is occurring everywhere ISIS plunders -- on Mt. Sinjar and off of it and they expect the U.S. to lead by forging a coalition to stop ISIS in its tracks.  ISIS has been on the march for months.  You would think that had the terrible images coming from Mt. Sinjar not been seen in Washington the ISIS genocide against thousands of Shiites and Christians would have been inconvenient truths for this White House to cover its eyes to BECAUSE IT COULD MEAN BOOTS ON THE GROUND.

Obama and his fatigued staff blame the pile on their critics -- not themselves.  But critics are not responsible for the color blind red lines, the blurred pivots, the belated rescue missions, or the stupid eavesdropping and spying on allies.  And when it suits him, Obama just gives a back of the hand when challenged on major policy decisions that come back to bite him.  
On Saturday, August 9, President Obama told Tom Friedman that it is a "fantasy" to believe that arming secular Syrians early on would have made a difference. That is a perfect example of Obama revising history to silence his critics without any facts to substantiate that  claim of"fantasy" when he reversed himself a year later.  He rejected the case presented to him by Mrs. Clinton and SecDef Gates when it could have mattered, and when he finally decided to provided lethal aid to the "better" rebels, it was too late.  Whose "fantasy" is it?

What was really a fantasy was Obama's Syrian red line.  As much as his staff would like to sweep it under the rug his failed Syria policy created the greatest single national security credibility crisis in his entire presidency -- the so-called Red Line Assad crossed without much of a consequence.  Assad was still able to blow his people up to smithereens with barrel bombs.  The experts whose advise to cure the Syrian cold before it became the flu were sidelined and then quit, like former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who is scathing in his criticism of this White House's political agenda at the expense of national security.
Events have consistently vindicated Mrs. Clinton time and again as the Syrian crisis unfolded.  She was steadfast in her determination to come to the humanitarian rescue of millions of Syrian refugees when Obama considered it a slippery slope to "boots on the ground."

Had the U.S. acted more quickly, tens of thousands of Syrians could have been saved from the conflict.  The White House dragged its feet for months before agreeing to dispatch a USAID survey team to assess the humanitarian crisis -- "gotta keep those boots from getting on the ground!"
I know from Turkish diplomats the following nugget.  In March, 2013, Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davotuglu flew into Washington to urgently meet with then SecState Clinton to coordinate a plan to create humanitarian corridor "no fly zones" over Syria and to lay the groundwork to provide non-lethal intel support to the moderate Free Syrian Army forces.  Mrs. Clinton's team had labored for months to align Washington and Ankara in order to ensure that when she arrived in Istanbul for a Friends of Syria meeting, the U.S. would unveil an effective," no boots on the ground" plan.

Just before wheels up from Andrews. The White House pulled the plug on Mrs. Clinton; who arrived in Istanbul scrambling to undo the damage the national security staff had just inflicted on its bilateral credibility with Turkey and with other Middle East nations attending the conference.  All they were trying to do was attempting to forge a reasonable, moderate coalition against the Assad regime and to try to come to the aid of millions of destitute, homeless and starving Syrian refugees.

It mattered not to Obama's White House staff that it had just sucker-punched itself in the eye (again).  Anything that smacked of "engagement" in Syria violated the "no boots on the ground" political dictate.

You would think Obama would want to correct his course.  But the status quo is his want.  It's the critics after all who are at fault.

Still, for the sake of his presidency, how about bringing onto his White House staff seasoned national security experts who know how to forge coalitions, are good special emissaries, who have credibility and trust with regional leaders, who can formulate strategy instead of reacting tactically to events.

The American people would be shocked if they knew that there is no one senior on the national security staff who has long-term, hands-on Middle East experience advising this president given the enormous national security challenges we face in the Middle East.

That is the difference between Mrs. Clinton and President Obama.  She was not threatened by seasoned, respected world class diplomats like Richard Holbrooke or George Mitchell.  She welcomed top talent and the constructive insights and advice from her top foreign service officers.  She brought in experts and forged allies in Congress and with other cabinet officers.

That is not the case with this White House.  In the tight circle around this president there is no room for anyone who may challenge the political pecking order inside the NSC.

The American people deserve a foreign policy they can be proud of.  Democrats deserve a foreign policy they can run on.  That means "Doing the Best Stuff" instead of "Don't Do Stupid Stuff."
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