Commentary Magazine


Topic: Blair

Obama’s Appeal Is Lost on World Leaders

Adding weight to the dominant critique of Obama’s foreign policy — that it helps our enemies and hurts our allies — is the parlous state of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the bedrock of our security in Asia since the 1940s. David Pilling of the Financial Times writes:

When Japan’s prime minister visited Washington this month, Japanese officials lobbied intensely to get him a one-on-one with Barack Obama. In the end, Yukio Hatoyama had to settle for just 10 minutes, and even that during a banquet when the US president was presumably more interested in the appetisers and wine. These things matter in Japan. One senior politician called the put-down — as it was inevitably viewed in Tokyo — “humiliating”. He even noted that the Japanese prime minister was shunted to the edge of a group photo, the diplomatic equivalent of banishment to Siberia.

It would be wrong to read too much into these titbits of protocol (though it is always fun trying). But behind the snub lies something real. The US-Japan alliance, the cornerstone of security in east Asia since 1945, has not looked so rocky in years.

Granted, the increasingly rocky relations between the U.S. and Japan are not all, or even mainly, Obama’s fault. Prime Minister Hatoyama and his left-wing party deserve the majority of the blame, because they are trying to reopen negotiations over the American base on Okinawa and generally adopting a more anti-American posture. But Obama isn’t helping.

I am reminded of this important Jackson Diehl column, which pointed out that Obama hasn’t developed a close relationship with a single foreign leader, even while he has managed to increase American popularity abroad. “In this,” Diehl wrote, “he is the opposite of George W. Bush, who was reviled among the foreign masses but who forged close ties with a host of leaders — Aznar of Spain, Uribe of Colombia, Sharon and Olmert of Israel, Koizumi of Japan.” I would add Blair of Britain to that list; the Bush-Blair chemistry was famously close, while Obama is typically aloof in his dealings with Gordon Brown (himself not exactly the world’s friendliest head of state).

Neither the Bush posture (close to foreign leaders, alienated from their publics) nor that of Obama (the darling of foreign publics, alienated from their leaders) is ideal. In theory, you’d like to have the best of both worlds, but that’s perhaps asking far too much of the leader of the world’s superpower. Which is better — the Bush or the Obama position? I’m not sure. But it’s far from clear that Obama’s global popularity is much of a boon for the U.S. insofar as he hasn’t been able to translate his celebrity status into policy results.

Adding weight to the dominant critique of Obama’s foreign policy — that it helps our enemies and hurts our allies — is the parlous state of the U.S.-Japan alliance, the bedrock of our security in Asia since the 1940s. David Pilling of the Financial Times writes:

When Japan’s prime minister visited Washington this month, Japanese officials lobbied intensely to get him a one-on-one with Barack Obama. In the end, Yukio Hatoyama had to settle for just 10 minutes, and even that during a banquet when the US president was presumably more interested in the appetisers and wine. These things matter in Japan. One senior politician called the put-down — as it was inevitably viewed in Tokyo — “humiliating”. He even noted that the Japanese prime minister was shunted to the edge of a group photo, the diplomatic equivalent of banishment to Siberia.

It would be wrong to read too much into these titbits of protocol (though it is always fun trying). But behind the snub lies something real. The US-Japan alliance, the cornerstone of security in east Asia since 1945, has not looked so rocky in years.

Granted, the increasingly rocky relations between the U.S. and Japan are not all, or even mainly, Obama’s fault. Prime Minister Hatoyama and his left-wing party deserve the majority of the blame, because they are trying to reopen negotiations over the American base on Okinawa and generally adopting a more anti-American posture. But Obama isn’t helping.

I am reminded of this important Jackson Diehl column, which pointed out that Obama hasn’t developed a close relationship with a single foreign leader, even while he has managed to increase American popularity abroad. “In this,” Diehl wrote, “he is the opposite of George W. Bush, who was reviled among the foreign masses but who forged close ties with a host of leaders — Aznar of Spain, Uribe of Colombia, Sharon and Olmert of Israel, Koizumi of Japan.” I would add Blair of Britain to that list; the Bush-Blair chemistry was famously close, while Obama is typically aloof in his dealings with Gordon Brown (himself not exactly the world’s friendliest head of state).

Neither the Bush posture (close to foreign leaders, alienated from their publics) nor that of Obama (the darling of foreign publics, alienated from their leaders) is ideal. In theory, you’d like to have the best of both worlds, but that’s perhaps asking far too much of the leader of the world’s superpower. Which is better — the Bush or the Obama position? I’m not sure. But it’s far from clear that Obama’s global popularity is much of a boon for the U.S. insofar as he hasn’t been able to translate his celebrity status into policy results.

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Is the U.S. Preparing to Bomb Iran? Check the Source First

Mistrust the press — that is one important lesson from Max Boot’s post about Mark Perry’s sensationalist (and sensationally inaccurate) attribution of the U.S.-Israel fallout to General Petraeus.

Elsewhere in the news, be prepared for more instances of the mass media’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Take the report that the U.S. is seemingly getting ready to bomb Iran. The Herald, the Scottish daily, notes that a shipment has left California with military supplies for Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. This shipment includes huge quantities of bunker busters. Now all this may be true — but their news story is that these supplies are in preparation of a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The source of this analysis?

Professor Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

According to the Herald, Plesch said:

They are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran … US bombers are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours … The preparations were being made by the US military, but it would be up to President Obama to make the final decision. He may decide that it would be better for the US to act instead of Israel … The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely …

How many times has Professor Plesch claimed this before?

OpenDemocracy, March, 21, 2005, “Iran, the coming war“:

So when might the attack on Iran occur? The Bush administration has, from its perspective, allowed the Europeans and the non-proliferation diplomats enough time to fail. They will certainly use the UN conference on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament from 2-27 May 2005 as an opportunity to grandstand.

For US domestic political purposes a “crisis” in spring 2006 when the EU and the UN can once more be confronted with their alleged failures, and challenged to support US leadership, would be timely for mid-term elections in which the ultra-conservative coalition will wish to consolidate its gains and eliminate any nascent moderate or realistic Republican candidate in good time for the 2008 presidential election.

The Guardian, “Are we going to war with Iran?” October, 21, 2005:

A new war may not be as politically disastrous in Washington as many believe … For an embattled President Bush, combating the mullahs of Tehran may be a useful means of diverting attention from Iraq and reestablishing control of the Republican party prior to next year’s congressional elections. From this perspective, even an escalating conflict would rally the nation behind a war president. As for the succession to President Bush, Bob Woodward has named Mr Cheney as a likely candidate, a step that would be easier in a wartime atmosphere. Mr Cheney would doubtless point out that US military spending, while huge compared to other nations, is at a far lower percentage of gross domestic product than during the Reagan years. With regard to Mr Blair’s position, it would be helpful to know whether he has committed Britain to preventing an Iranian bomb “come what may” as he did with Iraq.

New Statesman, February, 19, 2007, “Iran — ready to attack”:

American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran could be implemented any day. They extend far beyond targeting suspect WMD facilities and will enable President Bush to destroy Iran’s military, political and economic infrastructure overnight using conventional weapons.

Four predictions in five years — and no war so far.

Professor Plesch does not seem to have his fact-checking machine and his sources up to date, tuned in, and reliably informed. It may not matter to some media outlets, which will probably continue to publish on ideological rather than factual grounds.

Still, journalists should remember that a good news story cannot rely just on the sensation of the message but must also ensure the credibility of the messenger. With Professor Plesch, it seems, this is just not the case.

Mistrust the press — that is one important lesson from Max Boot’s post about Mark Perry’s sensationalist (and sensationally inaccurate) attribution of the U.S.-Israel fallout to General Petraeus.

Elsewhere in the news, be prepared for more instances of the mass media’s inability to distinguish between fact and fiction. Take the report that the U.S. is seemingly getting ready to bomb Iran. The Herald, the Scottish daily, notes that a shipment has left California with military supplies for Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean. This shipment includes huge quantities of bunker busters. Now all this may be true — but their news story is that these supplies are in preparation of a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The source of this analysis?

Professor Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

According to the Herald, Plesch said:

They are gearing up totally for the destruction of Iran … US bombers are ready today to destroy 10,000 targets in Iran in a few hours … The preparations were being made by the US military, but it would be up to President Obama to make the final decision. He may decide that it would be better for the US to act instead of Israel … The US is not publicising the scale of these preparations to deter Iran, tending to make confrontation more likely …

How many times has Professor Plesch claimed this before?

OpenDemocracy, March, 21, 2005, “Iran, the coming war“:

So when might the attack on Iran occur? The Bush administration has, from its perspective, allowed the Europeans and the non-proliferation diplomats enough time to fail. They will certainly use the UN conference on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament from 2-27 May 2005 as an opportunity to grandstand.

For US domestic political purposes a “crisis” in spring 2006 when the EU and the UN can once more be confronted with their alleged failures, and challenged to support US leadership, would be timely for mid-term elections in which the ultra-conservative coalition will wish to consolidate its gains and eliminate any nascent moderate or realistic Republican candidate in good time for the 2008 presidential election.

The Guardian, “Are we going to war with Iran?” October, 21, 2005:

A new war may not be as politically disastrous in Washington as many believe … For an embattled President Bush, combating the mullahs of Tehran may be a useful means of diverting attention from Iraq and reestablishing control of the Republican party prior to next year’s congressional elections. From this perspective, even an escalating conflict would rally the nation behind a war president. As for the succession to President Bush, Bob Woodward has named Mr Cheney as a likely candidate, a step that would be easier in a wartime atmosphere. Mr Cheney would doubtless point out that US military spending, while huge compared to other nations, is at a far lower percentage of gross domestic product than during the Reagan years. With regard to Mr Blair’s position, it would be helpful to know whether he has committed Britain to preventing an Iranian bomb “come what may” as he did with Iraq.

New Statesman, February, 19, 2007, “Iran — ready to attack”:

American military operations for a major conventional war with Iran could be implemented any day. They extend far beyond targeting suspect WMD facilities and will enable President Bush to destroy Iran’s military, political and economic infrastructure overnight using conventional weapons.

Four predictions in five years — and no war so far.

Professor Plesch does not seem to have his fact-checking machine and his sources up to date, tuned in, and reliably informed. It may not matter to some media outlets, which will probably continue to publish on ideological rather than factual grounds.

Still, journalists should remember that a good news story cannot rely just on the sensation of the message but must also ensure the credibility of the messenger. With Professor Plesch, it seems, this is just not the case.

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The Times They Are a-Changin’

The Financial Times published a piece, “Don’t Be So Sure Invading Iraq Was Immoral,” written by Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford, a leading theologian and moral philosopher. According to Professor Biggar:

The decisive issue in evaluating the Iraq invasion is not whether it was morally flawed or disproportionate or illegal, but whether it was really necessary to stop or prevent a sufficiently great evil.

No one disputes that Saddam Hussein’s regime was grossly atrocious. In 1988 it used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in what, according to Human Rights Watch, amounted to genocide; and from 1988 to 2003 it murdered at least 400,000 of its own people. Critics of the invasion would presumably not tolerate such a regime in their own backyard; and an effective international policing authority would have changed it. Is the coalition to be condemned for filling the vacuum? Yes, there have been similar vacuums that it (and others) have failed to fill – Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Darfur. But is it not better to be inconsistently responsible than

consistently irresponsible?

Now add the concern about weapons of mass destruction. This was sufficiently grave to rouse the UN to litter the period 1991-2003 with 17 resolutions calling on Saddam to disarm permanently. Given the shocking discovery in the mid-1990s of Iraq’s success in enriching uranium and coming within 24 months of nuclear armament, and given the regime’s persistent flouting of the UN’s will, there was good reason to withhold benefit of doubt and to suppose that it was developing WMDs. It was not just Messrs Bush and Blair who supposed this. So did Jacques Chirac, then French president, and Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector.

We now know this reasonable supposition was mistaken and that the problem was less urgent than it appeared. But it was still urgent. Saddam was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and support for containment was dissolving. David Kelly, Britain ’s chief expert on Iraqi WMDs, famous for being driven to commit suicide, is less famous for being convinced that the problem’s only lasting solution was regime-change.

Maybe critics of the war view with equanimity what might have happened without the 2003 invasion, trusting that the secular rationality of Realpolitik would have prevented the rivalry between Iraq’s atrocious Saddam and Iran’s millenarian Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad from turning catastrophically nuclear. In this age of suicide bombers, however, such faith is hard to credit.

Well said. And that it was said is further evidence, I think, that we are seeing a climate change when it comes to the debate about the Iraq war.

The Financial Times published a piece, “Don’t Be So Sure Invading Iraq Was Immoral,” written by Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford, a leading theologian and moral philosopher. According to Professor Biggar:

The decisive issue in evaluating the Iraq invasion is not whether it was morally flawed or disproportionate or illegal, but whether it was really necessary to stop or prevent a sufficiently great evil.

No one disputes that Saddam Hussein’s regime was grossly atrocious. In 1988 it used chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians in what, according to Human Rights Watch, amounted to genocide; and from 1988 to 2003 it murdered at least 400,000 of its own people. Critics of the invasion would presumably not tolerate such a regime in their own backyard; and an effective international policing authority would have changed it. Is the coalition to be condemned for filling the vacuum? Yes, there have been similar vacuums that it (and others) have failed to fill – Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Darfur. But is it not better to be inconsistently responsible than

consistently irresponsible?

Now add the concern about weapons of mass destruction. This was sufficiently grave to rouse the UN to litter the period 1991-2003 with 17 resolutions calling on Saddam to disarm permanently. Given the shocking discovery in the mid-1990s of Iraq’s success in enriching uranium and coming within 24 months of nuclear armament, and given the regime’s persistent flouting of the UN’s will, there was good reason to withhold benefit of doubt and to suppose that it was developing WMDs. It was not just Messrs Bush and Blair who supposed this. So did Jacques Chirac, then French president, and Hans Blix, the UN’s chief weapons inspector.

We now know this reasonable supposition was mistaken and that the problem was less urgent than it appeared. But it was still urgent. Saddam was intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and support for containment was dissolving. David Kelly, Britain ’s chief expert on Iraqi WMDs, famous for being driven to commit suicide, is less famous for being convinced that the problem’s only lasting solution was regime-change.

Maybe critics of the war view with equanimity what might have happened without the 2003 invasion, trusting that the secular rationality of Realpolitik would have prevented the rivalry between Iraq’s atrocious Saddam and Iran’s millenarian Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad from turning catastrophically nuclear. In this age of suicide bombers, however, such faith is hard to credit.

Well said. And that it was said is further evidence, I think, that we are seeing a climate change when it comes to the debate about the Iraq war.

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Undoing the Damage — We Hope

As Stephen Hayes details, the Christmas Day bomber is now talking and the Obami have changed their tune. For days and weeks we heard from Obama’s flacks and from leaks in mainstream news outlets that in Abdulmutallab’s 50-minute interview, FBI agents got out all that we needed. And then we were told that he stopped talking even before the Miranda warnings were given. The spin-athon was on to convince us that “nothing was lost” by allowing him to lawyer up and sit mutely for five weeks. Now he’s talking and we are hearing that intelligence officials are (finally) extracting valuable data. Well, the information we are eliciting might have been even more valuable five weeks ago. Hayes sums up the Keystone Kops display that we have witnessed:

Four top U.S. counterterrorism officials — including Mueller, Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter — were not consulted about whether to handle Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant or a criminal. Leiter went on vacation the day after the attack.  John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, told him he could go. Three days after the attack, despite copious evidence that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was involved, President Obama declared the attempted bombing the work of “an isolated extremist.” Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, said that she was surprised by AQAP’s “determination” to attack the U.S. homeland and shocked to learn that they would send an individual, not a group, to carry out the deed. DNI Blair told Congress that an elite interrogation team should have questioned Abdulmutallab — only to amend his remarks hours later to acknowledge that the new unit does not exist.

The Obama team is straining to maintain credibility, to convince the public that their criminal-justice model really does make sense, and to assure us that they have not blundered by throwing overboard Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. But let’s get real here: the problem, as well as the spin, started when Abdulmutallab, with no input from intelligence officials, was treated like a common criminal and then clammed up. The last five weeks have been spent by the Obami trying to undue that damage. Let’s hope nothing was lost in the interim. Let’s hope the leads we get (if we get any) have not gone cold. And let’s hope we didn’t give Abdulmutallab a “deal” in order to get him to resume talking.

As Stephen Hayes details, the Christmas Day bomber is now talking and the Obami have changed their tune. For days and weeks we heard from Obama’s flacks and from leaks in mainstream news outlets that in Abdulmutallab’s 50-minute interview, FBI agents got out all that we needed. And then we were told that he stopped talking even before the Miranda warnings were given. The spin-athon was on to convince us that “nothing was lost” by allowing him to lawyer up and sit mutely for five weeks. Now he’s talking and we are hearing that intelligence officials are (finally) extracting valuable data. Well, the information we are eliciting might have been even more valuable five weeks ago. Hayes sums up the Keystone Kops display that we have witnessed:

Four top U.S. counterterrorism officials — including Mueller, Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Michael Leiter — were not consulted about whether to handle Abdulmutallab as an enemy combatant or a criminal. Leiter went on vacation the day after the attack.  John Brennan, the top White House counterterrorism adviser, told him he could go. Three days after the attack, despite copious evidence that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was involved, President Obama declared the attempted bombing the work of “an isolated extremist.” Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, said that she was surprised by AQAP’s “determination” to attack the U.S. homeland and shocked to learn that they would send an individual, not a group, to carry out the deed. DNI Blair told Congress that an elite interrogation team should have questioned Abdulmutallab — only to amend his remarks hours later to acknowledge that the new unit does not exist.

The Obama team is straining to maintain credibility, to convince the public that their criminal-justice model really does make sense, and to assure us that they have not blundered by throwing overboard Bush-era anti-terrorism policies. But let’s get real here: the problem, as well as the spin, started when Abdulmutallab, with no input from intelligence officials, was treated like a common criminal and then clammed up. The last five weeks have been spent by the Obami trying to undue that damage. Let’s hope nothing was lost in the interim. Let’s hope the leads we get (if we get any) have not gone cold. And let’s hope we didn’t give Abdulmutallab a “deal” in order to get him to resume talking.

Read Less




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