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Obama Learns the Value of Allies

Although President Obama’s first-term habit of serially offending U.S. allies appeared to be a procession of gaffes and errors, there actually was a strategy behind it. Picking fights with the Israeli prime minister; delaying and reconsidering free-trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia; shelving missile-defense plans in the Czech Republic and Poland to curry favor with Russia, and announcing it on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland; pointedly ignoring India; and of course the absurd series of insults so dignifiedly absorbed by Britain were all part of a plan.

It wasn’t a good plan, but it was a plan nonetheless. Obama wanted to broaden the tent of American allies. To do this, the president decided to reach out to Russia, Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, etc., and do so at the expense of tending to the existing alliances. What happened was utterly predictable: those outside the tent never considered entering, and those inside started wandering out. The fallacy underlying this strategy was the president’s assumption that allies were allies and would remain so, and thus didn’t need nurturing. He was wrong, of course, as even a cursory review of modern history would have informed him.

It’s true that in most cases countries need the U.S. more than the U.S. needs them–individually, at least. But when combined, the story begins to shift. We need our allies, and that’s why presidents devote so much time to cultivating them. And when we need to call on our allies, it’s usually in a pinch–as the president is finding out now. Obama has called for quite limited military action against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. But he’s learning that he cannot “lead from behind” if there’s no one else standing with him.

That’s not to say that Obama’s inept diplomacy is solely to blame for his inability to patch together a “coalition of the willing,” the way his predecessor was able to. War-weariness, economic belt-tightening, the vagueness of the proposed Syria mission, and the presence of Islamist extremists among Assad’s opposition all play a role. But the British parliament’s defeat of an authorization proposal may now be echoed by France–a country that has begun backing slowly away from its initial support of President Obama, as the Associated Press reports:

The French parliament will debate Wednesday whether the nation should launch strikes against Syria, though France’s president says he will wait for a decision from the U.S. Congress on possible military action against Bashar Assad’s regime.

As the Obama administration worked to build support ahead of the Congress vote, the U.S. and Israel conducted a joint missile test Tuesday in the eastern Mediterranean in an apparent signal of military readiness. In the operation, a missile was fired from the sea toward the Israeli coast to test the tracking by the country’s missile defense system.

The French parliament will debate the Syria issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled. France’s constitution doesn’t require such a vote for military intervention unless its lasts longer than four months, though some French lawmakers have urged President Francois Hollande to call one anyway.

That last part is key. There’s really no reason for Hollande to go to parliament, which suggests he may be looking for a way out. But also crucial in that report is the part about Israel. Yesterday, AIPAC publicly joined the effort to build support in Congress for Obama’s Syria plans. The group released a statement saying, in part:

AIPAC urges Congress to grant the President the authority he has requested to protect America’s national security interests and dissuade the Syrian regime’s further use of unconventional weapons. The civilized world cannot tolerate the use of these barbaric weapons, particularly against an innocent civilian population including hundreds of children. 

Simply put, barbarism on a mass scale must not be given a free pass.

Though it was expected that the president would ask AIPAC for help behind the scenes, the public nature of this effort underscores just how shaky is congressional support (and public support, for the two are related) for intervention in Syria. The president has also received vocal support from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres. All this serves as a reminder that it’s good to have allies on the front lines of the chaos in the Middle East into which the U.S. is seeking to intervene.

Such support would surely come regardless of which Israeli political party is in power, but perhaps Obama is finally coming to appreciate Benjamin Netanyahu’s relationship with Congress and almost comical pro-American disposition. (Netanyahu’s love of America is the subject of rather humorous parody.) In any event, allies should not be taken for granted. It’s an inconvenient moment for Obama to learn this lesson, but that only makes it less likely to be forgotten this time.



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