On January 20th, Barack Obama’s 2nd term as US President expired and Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President. This is the last in a 3 part series looking at the Obama Presidency after Part 1 – Electoral Legacy and Part 2 – Domestic Policy.
US policy towards Israel traditionally has focused on the possibility of a lasting peace via a two state solution between Israel and the Palestinians with almost every President since 1948 seeking this outcome. Thus the Obama Administration began its efforts against a back drop of long standing historical failure by his predecessors. However what separates out the Obama Administration is its barely concealed hostility to Israel compared to previous post war Presidents. This comes as no surprise given that Obama previously marinated in the university common room’s long standing antipathy to Israel. His formative advisors on Middle East matters come from a similar history of opposition or ambivalence towards Israel including Edward Said, one of Obama’s close friends and mentors in Chicago. The same was true for the Administration’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice, a person with a long history of favouring Palestinian positions over those of Israel.
This has led to a most aggressive stance towards Israel. It began with a ham-fisted attempt by Obama to stop apartment building projects in West Jerusalem (a portion of the city known to be Jewish occupied for centuries and quite some distance away from the hotly contested West Bank). Netanyahu responded by ignoring Obama. Things went downhill since then. Rather than pressure Hezbollah and Hamas into recognizing Israel and forswearing their desires to destroy Israel as a necessary precondition for peace, Obama has uniquely placed the onus of peace almost entirely on Israel’s shoulders and foolishly mused that Israel should retreat to its pre-1967 borders – a situation that places Tel Aviv and the heart of Israel’s industry and defense establishment within easy gun and rocket range of its hostile enemies.
Obama’s attempt at intervention in the last Gaza war made things worse and Obama’s antipathy to Netanyahu has been manifest in various ways including: slighting him at a March 2010 White House visit by abruptly ending an important bilateral meeting to have dinner with his family, his attempts to block Netanyahu’s address to Congress in 2015 regarding the Iranian nuclear deal, and his clandestine sending of campaign operatives to assist opponents to Netanyahu’s Likud Party in March 2015 Knesset elections.
But it was Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s actions in the dying days of the Administration where the most profound slight against Israel was delivered. Usually when anti-Israel resolutions are brought to a vote at the United Nations Security Council, the US vetoes them as they are normally a one-sided condemnation of Israel. On December 23rd, Obama allowed his UN Ambassador to abstain from a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This has caused outrage because not only does it depart from the long standing (at least since the Carter Administration) policy of the US vetoing controversial anti-Israel resolutions but because the resolution itself went so much further than mere condemnation of West Bank settlements by criminalizing Israelis in East Jerusalem (a location with centuries old Jewish roots) and effectively criminalizing any devout Jew who attempts to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple. Furthermore, it empowers the International Court of Justice in The Hague to try Israeli soldiers if engaging in acts of war against the Palestinians as war criminals. These are radical, extreme and manifestly unfair proposals that the US had no business standing back from and allowing to pass. New Zealand is caught up in this shameless act as it was the joint mover of the motion. Murray McCully, Obama and Kerry have all disingenuously tried to say that this does not represent any change in US (or even NZ) policy when clearly what was passed adds language never before passed by the SC.
Obama and Kerry managed one more pro-Palestinian zinger just as they left office; the State Department made an unauthorized payment of $221 million to the Palestinian Authority on Kerry’s instructions just hours before the Inauguration of Donald Trump last Friday, an action that was not only expressly forbidden by Congress but where the previously appropriated funds were frozen. The brazenness of this action speaks volumes for the Obama Administration’s attitude towards Israel. Fortunately the relevant Senate Committee Chair put a block on the transfer.
Ukraine and Russia
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off an ignominious start to the Obama Administration’s Russia policy with the infamous Russian reset. What did this ‘reset’ result in:
- Scrapping the placement of US missile defense systems in Poland and Czech Republic to pacify Putin;Standing by while Russia annexed Crimea and invaded eastern Ukraine;
- No consequences for Russia despite the revelations that Russian backed Ukrainian separatists were identified as the source of the missile that downed Malaysian Airlines MH 17 over the Ukraine killing 298 innocent civilians (including a Belgian friend of mine who had previously been a long-time resident of Queenstown);
- Allowing Russia a free hand to expand its influence in the Middle East all the while letting Syria’s Assad off the hook.
Of even greater significance has been Russia’s stepped up cyber incursions into sensitive US government computer servers. Russian hacks into US military, intelligence and government servers have been extensive, ongoing and potentially damaging and yet the Obama Administration appears to have done little to prevent it or hold Russia accountable UNTIL it appeared that Russia was behind hacks into the Democrat National Committee computer (where emails showing the DNC skewered the Democrat primary in Hillary Clinton’s favor) and the leak of Clinton Campaign Chairman John Podesta’s emails (that showed high level Democrats dissing key parts of their base). Suddenly, these incursions were worthy of action with Obama announcing some sanctions and travel bans on Russian government official.
Obama has made a virtue of leading from behind. A great example of his passivity was his failure to back the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009. The Iranian regime was vulnerable and opposition forces pleaded for support from the US and got nothing: not even rhetorical or moral support as Obama seemed to want to keep the Mullahs in place to later cut a deal he could take credit for and so he stayed on the sidelines. This was an opportunity to possibly change the trajectory in the Middle East by backing regime change in Iran. Such a change likely would’ve ended the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons with a more moderate faction in power.
In January 2016, another offshoot of the Iranian nuclear deal became apparent and that was a hostage swap where 4 Americans in captivity in Iran were released simultaneous to the US returning 7 Iranians. What made the deal more suspect was the sight of the US shipping $400 million in US Dollars, Swiss Francs and Euro bank notes, some from the US Treasury, the rest from the central banks of nations like the Netherlands and Switzerland. Whilst the Obama Administration claimed it was the repayment of funds owed to Iran from funds frozen back in 1979, the fact that the payment was kept secret from Congress (the cash shipment being discovered by accident) AND the timing of the payment mere days after the return of the US detainees, gave the transaction the appearance of a cash for hostage release.
Iranian nuclear deal
The Iranian nuclear deal is the perfect metaphor for Obama’s foreign policy and so it will merit more detailed attention. On July 14th 2015 the Obama Administration announced that an agreement (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) had been reached with the Iranians regarding their nuclear programme. It was sold heavily by Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama as a good deal that will constrain Iran’s nuclear ambition and bring ‘peace in our time’. The deal was quickly ratified by the UN Security Council but was the subject of much internal GOP Senate wrangling before it was approved by the Senate.
Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has conducted a large number of acts of aggression against enemies of its Islamic fundamentalist ideals beginning of course with the 444 day captivity of 56 of the staff of the US Embassy in Teheran. Iran has been an aggressive funder and provider of weapons for Islamic terror groups across the Middle East including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Houthi rebels in Yemen and a number of attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets around the globe with the most devastating attacks being in Argentina. After the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Quds forces acted to foment Shia on Sunni sectarian violence in Iraq that was not quelled until the Petraeus led surge of US troops in 2006.
Iran cannot be considered as anything other than an extremist repressive theocracy. There are no free elections, no trade unions, no free press, an extensive and brutal secret police to stamp out opposition, woman are subservient as Islamic laws that treat them as second class citizens are enforced and homosexuals are routinely beaten, imprisoned and executed.
The whole purpose of the JCPOA arose from the long efforts of the Iranians to build a nuclear weapons capability. The entire sanctions regime that was under review was imposed on Iran because it continued to develop this capability despite UN Security Council resolutions and the original opposition of the US and its allies.
The Obama Administration entered these talks with several so-called red or bottom lines. As the negotiations wore on in Geneva, the US progressively caved on each red line:
* The closing down and dismantling of the underground facility at Fordow. Now it can continue to operate with nothing more than ineffectual Russian oversight.
* Inspections were initially going to be “anywhere – anytime”. These have been negotiated away to a farcical regime that gives the Iranians the ability to effectively police themselves.
In addition, a relatively toothless monitoring regime was put in place:
1st – Known nuclear sites. Policing of these sites will be more rigorous under the JCPOA. For this reason, the Iranians will migrate the weaponization programme from these heavily policed sites that are the most talked about to secondary sites. These known sites are where the Iranians will very publicly reduce the numbers of centrifuges to give the impression of freezing their nuclear programme.
2nd – Secondary suspicious sites. It is activity at these sites where the scope for Iranian flouting of the JCPOA will first occur. The regime for inspecting these sites is frankly pathetic. The IAEA, the US and allies have long suspected the facility at Parchin to be a nuclear weapons development site. But in a secret side deal between the Iranians and the IAEA (that the Obama Administration refuse to show to Congress) the Iranians are allowed to monitor themselves at Parchin. This agreement specifically makes Parchin off limits to US inspectors leaving Iran to ‘phone it in’.
3rd – Unknown sites. The Iranians will cheat the most in small unknown sites. The inspections regime negotiated makes finding suspicious activity at these sites all but impossible. If suspicion arises, the IAEA must first provide evidence, a P5 + EU committee must approve of inspections (this will take months and the Russians and Chinese will delay and object) and only if the committee agrees, THEN the Iranians will be given 24 days warning of a formal inspection; enough time to clean up any nuclear material despite claims of technology to find even cleaned up sites. According to former IAEA inspector Ari Knownen the chance of catching Iranian breaches of the JCPOA at these sites is zero.
The Agreement makes no genuine attempt at permanently dismantling Iran’s nuclear bomb development capacity. It temporarily forces Iran to give up only SOME of its infrastructure (several thousand of the smaller, simpler centrifuges) for 10 years only to give it back. The Iranian regime has not been required to halt research and development of the faster centrifuges that will enable it to break out to a bomb more rapidly than is the case right now. The deal specifically legitimizes ongoing R&D under certain eroding limitations. Iran can commence testing on the fast IR-8 single centrifuge machines as soon as the deal goes into effect and can commence testing on an additional thirty IR 6 and IR 8 centrifuges in 8½ years’ time enabling it to race to the bomb even faster despite the give back of the uranium.
The entire sanctions infrastructure has been shredded with almost no ability to re-implement anything quick or stringent for any Iranian bad behaviour. The so-called snap back provisions are far from that. It took many years to set in motion the previous sanctions. Whilst the US Congress could quickly re-impose restrictions on the flow of funds through US banks, without buy-in from the EU countries and Russia and China (two countries who opposed the sanctions in the first place and sought ways to circumvent them), there would not be nearly the same deleterious effect on the Iranian economy from what the JCPOA proposes would happen in the unlikely event that Iranian subterfuge is caught with the severely weakened inspections regime the Obama people caved on.
The agreement not only lifts the sanctions that had progressively become quite draconian and had severely constrained Iranian economic activity but the JCPOA provides for a massive financial shot in the arm to the regime of $160 Billion. The Iranians would like to have the West believe that this money will be spent on domestic improvements. A short glance at Iranian foreign policy tells us that plenty of this money will be spent by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to further arm Iran’s Shi’ite proxies in Lebanon, the West Bank, Yemen and Gaza. Where else does Hezbollah get its huge arsenal of rockets to fire into Israel and Hamas the financial capacity to build its deep and sophisticated terror tunnels into Israel and its own arsenal of Israel-bound rockets? The IRG will also continue to prop up the Assad regime in Syria and its own vicious civil war with ISIS.
Obama was so desperate to do the deal that Iran got other bonuses it didn’t ask for. First it got the lifting of the ban on conventional weapons. This means that the signing bonus money can be spent on perfecting medium to long range conventional missiles that can threaten not just Israel but Europe as well. Only a few days ago, Iran was caught testing these weapons in contravention of the agreement. And you can plan on any accelerated development of Iranian missile delivery of conventional warheads to have cross over applicability to its parallel pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Second, Iran got a guarantee from sabotage of its nuclear programme. It’s not sufficient that the US gave away its “anywhere anytime” inspections goal, the agreement requires the P5 to protect the arrangement from external manipulation.
Few recall Obama’s campaign promise in 2008 to negotiate with Iran without conditions, an approach that, at the time, placed him to the left of even his Democrat rivals. With his showcase domestic reform (Obamacare) faltering and proving to be both costly and unpopular, with his presiding over some of the most devastating electoral losses for his party at the national and state level in over 70 years, after several shambolic foreign policy catastrophes (Syria, Libya), Obama was hungry for a legacy building showpiece foreign policy achievement. John Kerry’s appeasing instincts were on display soon after he returned from active duty in Vietnam so he made the perfect negotiator for Obama. After Obama ignored his Syrian red line over chemical weapons, stood by idly as the Russians took the Crimea and made incursions into Ukraine unopposed by NATO and ramped up the rhetoric against Israel, the Mullahs in Teheran knew they were dealing with a weak, pacifist dilettante anxious to sign any big agreement with them. The US gave away pretty much all it previous bottom lines and prostrated itself before the savvy Iranian negotiators in Geneva.
Rise of Islamic State
The Obama Administration made no genuine attempt to re-negotiate the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi Government after some initial pushback from the Iraqi Parliament. Disagreement was more over the size of the residual force with Obama favouring 10,000 and the Iraqis wanting about the same as were left in Korea (about 25,000). Whilst this was signaled by the Iraqi government to the Bush Administration, with some careful and patient negotiating, a residual force of US troops could’ve been negotiated (an equivalent was the amount of troops and length of time US forces remained in Germany post WW2 and in South Korea post the Korean War). Obama wanted all troops out and hid behind the supposed disagreement and let the old SFA expire.
The total withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq sent a signal to Islamic jihadist forces to do no more than wait out the US withdrawal. This vacuum and uncertainty allowed ISIS to take root and spread. Since ISIS’s expansion in Iraq and now Syria, Obama did the bare minimum to contain it almost going through the motions, his Administration has not been fully engaged in defeating ISIS. It ignored or downplayed intelligence that pointed to its rapid rise and Obama was foolish in his public dismissal of ISIS calling it the JV team (JV = Junior Varsity, the US equivalent of the 2nd XV in rugby) not wanting to cast any shadow on his decision to completely exit Iraq and the good political optics of ending an unpopular war. Obama was handed a war that had been won (he said it, Biden said it, Petraeus said it), a reasonably pacified US ally and some good things were finally happening in Iraq. He ignored military advice that said that a total withdrawal would lead to an even more unstable and fragmented Iraq
Obama’s weakness in confronting rogue players was never more manifest than his dealings with the Assad regime in Syria. Obama’s failure to enforce his red line against Assad’s use chemical weapons has had catastrophic results. It sent a signal to allies and adversaries that US threats were bluster and commitments meaningless. His vacillation at doing anything like train and arm rebel fighters to overthrow Assad (before they were displaced by Islamic fanatics) has fueled a civil war leaving 500,000 dead and millions displaced and ISIS getting a foothold in Syria as well as Iraq. There were Syrian moderates, encouraged by CIA Directors Penetta then Petraeus and there was a moment that arming them would’ve helped but the window closed due to Obama’s vacillating; the good ones were killed, driven out and the only rebels left were easy for the extremist jihadist to recruit and coopt.
Obama compounded his earlier errors by effectively washing his hands of any major US involvement in Syria by effectively sub-contracting the task of trying to deal with ISIS in Syria to the Russians who were more interested in propping up Assad and expanding their influence in the volatile Middle East. Obama’s inaction left a void into which Putin stepped.
Whilst no one had any time for Libyan strongman Gadhafi, one of the few benefits of the invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein was Gadhafi’s decision to voluntarily surrender his nuclear capability and shelve his nuclear ambitions. Libya was still a dictatorship but one of limited threat to its neighbours and to regional Middle East instability. Obama chooses to wage a limited air war designed to destroy Gadhafi with few options for a stable replacement government, all things he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were warned about. The allied bombings emboldened radical Islamist factions to overthrow and murder Gadhafi and Libya predictably collapsed and fragmented into a series of warlord controlled territories with several quickly becoming terrorist havens.
For months, the US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens had warned the State Department that the situation in Benghazi was becoming more and more violent and volatile and that the US Consulate there needed to be significantly strengthened and fortified if it was to remain. All other major western nations had taken out all their consular representation in Benghazi due to the volatile situation. Despite his numerous pleas, the security situation at the consulate and residence remained vulnerable and during a time when Ambassador Stevens visited, an al Qaida in Libya group overran the Consulate and ended up killing the Ambassador and three of his CIA security detail. Given the sensitivity of the date of the attack (anniversary of 9/11) and the proximity to the 2012 Presidential elections, the Obama Administration pulled out all the stops to try to minimize any electoral fallout over this devastating news. Apart from the lack of preparation for such an eventuality (no ready rescue forces close enough) and the repeated ignoring of Ambassador Stevens’ increasingly shrill security concerns, Obama allowed his Administration to perpetrate a lie about the source of the attack by saying that the unrest had been fomented by an obscure inflammatory anti-Islamic video posted by a crank on You Tube. On the night after the attack in Benghazi Hillary Clinton emailed her daughter Chelsea to say it was a jihadist terrorist attack and yet the next day Obama’s UN Ambassador Susan Rice goes on all five US Sunday TV and cable news talk shows to propagate the line that the attack was a spontaneous riot triggered by the video. Clinton perpetrated that lie in an even more insidious way by repeating it to the families of the four killed Americans when they met with her at the time their bodies were returned to the US. It took weeks before Obama would finally admit to the Islamic terrorist connection behind the attacks. The whole Libyan fiasco and the events at Benghazi remain one of the most shameless acts of dereliction of duty and subsequent deceit by a President in living memory.
Bowe Burgdahl was a marine who deserted his post in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban in 2009. In May 2013, the Obama Administration blatently hid the details of Burgdahl’s capture and his ending up with the Taliban and negotiated a lopsided prisoner exchange releasing five known and convicted Taliban terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility into a 1 year custody arrangement in Qatar. Outrage erupted when the full details of Burgdahl’s desertion (that ultimately led to his court martial) and for the inordinately high price that the Obama Administration had paid to bring home someone so undeserving.
Emboldened by US global weakness and the deliberate Obama regime’s policy of shrinking in size of the US Navy, China has pressed ahead with a rapid expansion of its deep-water navy and assertions of sovereignty and aggression in key merchant ship seaways of the South China Sea leading to rising tension between China and Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan. These tensions are exacerbated by aggressive Chinese expansion of the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands by adding infill land onto coral reefs sufficient to build runways and an air force landing base within such proximity to threaten the vital shipping lanes.
Obama has been weak and ineffectual on the world stage. The world is infinitely more unstable and violent than it was at the beginning of his presidency. ISIS, whilst having lost some territory in Iraq, seems able to indirectly or directly inspire and/or coordinate terrorist attacks with increasing frequency especially on mainland Europe. The Middle East is in turmoil with Syria ravaged by civil war, Israel and the Palestinians no closer to a two state solution and traditional Arab allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan nervous about Iranian hegemony in the region and Libya a dangerous basketcase. Russia is flexing its muscles regionally with annexations, military incursions and a growing influence in the Middle East. China seems able to expand its ambitions with relative impunity. The US has shown scant regard for the security of its allies and has coddled the enemies of the US (Iran, Cuba) and has not stood firm against the terrorist tendencies of Hamas and Hezbollah. Obama gave a soaring speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin and yet so little of his vision has ever come to pass. It was the perfect metaphor for his Presidency, powerful rhetorical flourishes not backed up by concrete action that has eroded US power abroad. Whilst many in New Zealand would view such constraints on US influence as a good thing, few would argue that Obama has left Trump a safer world.