Obama’s rhetorical storm
The Obama administration is absolutely furious at Russia and China. The two UN Security Council permanent members’ move on Saturday to veto a resolution on Syria utterly infuriated US President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice. And they want us all to know just how piping mad they really are.
Rice called the vetoes “unforgivable,” and said that “any further blood that flows will be on their hands.” She said the US was “disgusted.”
Clinton called the move by Moscow and Beijing a “travesty.” She then said that the US will take action outside the UN, “with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future.”
The rhetoric employed by Obama’s top officials is striking for what it reveals about how the Obama administration perceives the purpose of rhetoric in foreign policy.
Most US leaders have used rhetoric to explain their policies. But if you take the Obama administration’s statements at face value you are left scratching your head in wonder. Specifically on Syria, if you take these statements literally, you are left wondering if Obama and his advisers are simply clueless. Because if they are serious, their indignation bespeaks a remarkable ignorance about how decisions are made at the Security Council.
Is it possible that Obama believed that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would betray Bashar Assad, his most important strategic ally in the Middle East? Is it possible that he believed that the same Chinese regime that systematically tramples the human rights of its people would agree to intervene in another country’s domestic affairs?
Outside the intellectual universe of the Obama administration – where stalwart US allies such as Hosni Mubarak are discarded like garbage and foes such as Hugo Chavez are wooed like Hollywood celebrities – national governments tend to base their foreign policies on their national interests.
In light of this basic reality, Security Council actions generally reflect the national interests of its member states. This is how it has always been. This is how it will always be. And it is hard to believe that the Obama administration was unaware of this basic fact.
In fact, it is impossible to believe that the administration was unaware that its plan to pass a Security Council resolution opposing Assad’s massacre of his people – and so jeopardize Russian and Chinese interests – had no chance of success. The fact that they had to know the resolution would never pass leads to the conclusion that Obama and his advisers weren’t trying to pass the resolution on Syria at all.
Rather they were trying to pass the buck on Syria.
We have two pieces of evidence to support the view that the Obama administration has no intention of doing anything even vaguely effective to end Assad’s reign of terror that has so far taken the lives of between five and ten thousand of his countrymen.
First, for the past 10 months, as Assad’s killing machine kicked into gear, Obama and his advisers have been happy to sit on their hands. They supported Turkey’s feckless diplomatic engagement with Assad. They sat back as Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayep Erdogan employed the IHH, his regime-allied terror group, to oversee the organization of a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian opposition.
Second, the administration supported the Arab League’s farcical inspectors’ mission to Syria. That mission was led by Sudanese Gen. Muhammad al- Dabi. Dabi reportedly was one of the architects of the genocide in Darfur. Clearly, a mission under his leadership had no chance of accomplishing anything useful. And indeed, it didn’t.
AND SO, after nearly a year, the issue of Assad’s butchery of his citizens finally found its way to the Security Council last month. Many in the US expected Obama to use the opportunity to finally do something to stop the killing, just as he and his NATO allies did something to prevent the killing in Libya last year.
Ten months ago Obama, Rice, Clinton and National Security Council member Samantha Power decided that the US and its allies had to militarily intervene in Libya to ensure that Muammar Gaddafi didn’t have the opportunity to kill his people as Assad is now doing. That is, to prevent the type of human rights calamity that the Syrian people are now experiencing, Obama used the UN as a staging ground to overthrow Gaddafi through force.
Sadly for the people of Syria, who are being shot dead even as they try to bury their families who were shot dead the day before, unlike the situation in Libya, Obama has never had the slightest intention of using his influence to take action against Assad. And faced with the rapidly rising public expectation that he would take action at the Security Council to stop the killing, Obama opted for diplomatic Kabuki.
Knowing full well that Putin – who is still selling Assad weapons – would veto any resolution, rather than accept that the Security Council is a dead end, Obama had Rice negotiate fecklessly with her Russian counterparts. The resolution that ended up being called to a vote on Saturday was so weak that US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, issued a statement on Friday calling for the administration to veto it.
As Ros-Lehtinen put it, the draft resolution “contains no sanctions, no restrictions on weapons transfers, and no calls for Assad to go, but supports the failed Arab League observer mission,” and so isn’t “worth the paper it’s printed on.”
She continued, “The Obama administration should not support this weak, counterproductive resolution, and should also reconsider the legitimacy that it provides to the Arab League – an organization that continues to boycott Israel – when it comes to the regime in Damascus.”
But instead of vetoing it, the administration backed it to the tilt and then expressed disgust and moral outrage when Russia and China vetoed it.
The lesson of this spectacle is that it we must recognize that the Obama administration’s rhetoric hides more than it reveals about the president’s actual policies.
THE FIRST place that we should apply this lesson is to the hemorrhage of administration rhetoric about Iran.
For the past several weeks we have been treated to massive doses of verbiage from Obama and his senior advisers about Iran. The most notable of these recent statements was Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s conversation with The Washington Post’s David Ignatius last week.
Panetta used Ignatius to communicate two basic messages. First, he wanted to make clear that the administration adamantly opposes an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. And second, he wanted to make clear that if Iran strikes Israeli population centers, the US will come to Israel’s defense.
The purpose of the first message is clear enough. Panetta wished to increase pressure on Israel not to take preemptive action against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
The purpose of the second message is also clear. Panetta spoke of the US’s obligation to Israel’s defense in order to remove the justification for an Israeli attack. After all, if the US is obliged to defend it
, then Israel mustn’t risk harming US interests by defending itself.
, then Israel mustn’t risk harming US interests by defending itself.
When taken together, Panetta’s message sounds balanced and responsible. But when examined carefully, it is clear that it is not.
It is far from responsible for the US government to tell its chief ally that it should be willing to absorb an attack on its population centers from Iran. No government can be expected to sit back and wait to be attacked with nuclear weapons because if it is, the Americans will retaliate against its attacker.
Panetta’s message was not just irresponsible. It was obnoxious.
And this leaves the first message. Since Obama was elected the US has devoted most of its energies not to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but to pressuring Israel not to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. And Panetta’s remarks to Ignatius were consistent with this mission.
Some have argued that the US’s stepped-up naval presence in the Persian Gulf is evidence that the US is itself gearing up to attack Iran. But as retired US naval analyst J.E. Dyer explained in an essay last month at the Optimistic Conservative blog, the US posture in the Persian Gulf is defensive, not offensive.
The US has not deployed anywhere near the firepower it would need to conduct a successful military campaign against Iran’s nuclear installations. The only thing the US deployment may serve to accomplish is to deter Israel from launching a preemptive air strike against Iran’s nuclear installations.
It is true that to a certain extent, Israel has brought this escalating American rhetorical storm on itself with its own flood of rhetoric about Iran. Over the past week nearly every senior Israeli military and political official has had something to say about Iran’s nuclear program.
But this stream of words does not reflect a change in Israel’s strategic timetable. Rather it is a function of the rather mundane calendar of Israel’s annual conference circuit. It just so happened that the annual Herzliya Conference took place last week. It is standard fare for Israel’s security and political leadership to bloviate about Iran’s nuclear program at Herzliya. They do it every year. They did it this year.
And in truth, no one said anything at the conference that we didn’t already know. We learned nothing new about Iran’s program or Israel’s intentions. Had there been no conference last week, there would likely have been no flood of Israeli statements.
We only know three things for certain about Iran. It is getting very late in the game for anyone to take any military actions to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Iran will not stop its nuclear weapons program voluntarily. And Obama will not order US forces to take action to stop Iran’s nuclear project.
What remains uncertain still is how Israel plans to respond to these three certainties. The fact that Israel has waited this long to strike presents the disturbing prospect that our leaders may have been confused by the Obama administration’s rhetoric. Perhaps they have been persuaded that the US is on our side on this issue and that we don’t have to rely only on ourselves to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
But as the foregoing analysis of the administration’s very angry words on Syria and very sober words on Iran demonstrates, Obama and his deputies use rhetoric not to clarify their intentions, but to obfuscate them. Just as they will do nothing to prevent Assad from continuing his campaign of murder and terror, so they will do nothing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.