Mattis Shines a Poor Light on the Obama White House

800px-james_mattisMy previous post focused on the unnoticed irony involved in the appointment of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary, given the Obama administration’s treatment of him when he was head of the U.S. Central Command.  But the Mattis story also underscores two other themes articulated in a number of earlier posts.  The first point regards the utter disingenuousness of President Obama’s once-regular threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.  The second is about the dysfunctional character of the Obama national security process.

A recent Washington Post report about the relationship between General Mattis and the Obama White House emphasizes the overriding priority Mr. Obama put on reaching an accommodation with Iran over its atomic ambitions.  In the summer of 2011, Mattis proposed to undertake a military strike against Iran in retaliation for the causalities Tehran-backed militias were inflicting on U.S. forces in Iraq.  The plan reportedly prompted “heated discussions” in Washington that “stretched out for weeks” before it was ultimately rejected by President Obama.  As the newspaper notes, Mattis concluded from the episode that “Obama White House was unwilling to take the fight directly to the Iranians, even when they drew American blood.”

More ructions between Mattis and the White House soon followed.  A second “heated debate” took place during late 2011 and early 2012 when Mattis asked for contingent permission to take preemptive action against any Iranian attempt to mine the strategically-critical Strait of Hormuz.  As the Obama team began to engage in multilateral talks with Iran in the summer of 2012, Mattis further raised hackles by “relentlessly [drilling] the U.S. military’s war plan for Iran” and by emphasizing in his reports to Washington the destabilizing role Tehran was playing in the Middle East, including its support for terrorism.

By early 2013, tensions had grown such that Mattis was unceremoniously removed from his post.  Although the Obama administration did not present his ouster as a rebuke, Mattis is reportedly convinced that “he had been dismissed early for running afoul of the White House.” Dennis Ross, who was then Obama’s point person on Iran policy, is also quoted in the newspaper as saying:

It was a kind of culture clash.  There was such a preoccupation in the White House with not doing things that would provoke Iran or be seen as provocative. Mattis was, by definition, inclined toward doing those things that would be seen as provocative. And as time went by, this became increasingly less acceptable to them [emphasis added].

It is, of course, a president’s prerogative to choose his own military commanders and dictate the perimeters of their conduct.  But note the striking disjunction between what was going on behind the scenes with Mattis and what Mr. Obama was publicly saying in 2012.  In that year’s State of the Union address, the president stated that “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”  In a media interview shortly afterwards, he emphasized that he was not bluffing about the military option and that “when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”  “I don’t bluff,” he emphatically insisted. Obama then followed this up with a hard-hitting address to the American Israel Political Action Committee, an influential lobbying group in Washington, stressing that “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.”

This blog has long been suspicious (see here and here) of the sincerity of the threats President Obama was making at this time about his willingness to undertake military action, if necessary, to curb Iran’s nuclear program.  The Washington Post report further reinforces these doubts.

The Mattis story also exemplifies a regular criticism made about the Obama policy-making process – that his national security inner team was not above squelching dissenting views or insulating him from unpalatable news.  Commenting on Mattis’s ouster from CENTCOM, Thomas E. Ricks, a defense journalist generally sympathetic to the administration, exclaimed at the time that “The message the Obama Administration is sending, intentionally or not, is that it doesn’t like tough, smart, skeptical generals who speak candidly to their civilian superiors.”

A number of previous posts (here, here, here and here) have detailed the Obama White House’s intolerance of critical advice, even when it came from inside the administration.  And the Washington Post article bolsters this point, quoting Leon E. Panetta, who was Defense Secretary at the time, as saying about the debate triggered by Mattis’s plans for retaliating against Iran:

There were clearly White House staff who thought the recommendations he was making were too aggressive.  But I thought a lot of that was, frankly, not having the maturity to look at all of the options that a president should look at in order to make the right decisions [emphasis added].

Senate Democrats heaped high praise on Mattis during his confirmation hearing because they saw his experience as something that will add stability and balance to the new Trump team.  But they showed no awareness that his story also illuminates the real deficiencies of President Obama’s national security policies.

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

The Irony of the Mattis Appointment

800px-james_mattisThe easy confirmation of James N. Mattis as President Trump’s Defense Secretary entails no small amount of irony.  Senate Democrats perceive the retired Marine general as someone who will speak unvarnished truth to a new White House team they fear will try to insulate Mr. Trump from unpalatable news and disagreeable perspectives.  But left unremarked upon is that his earlier tenure as the head of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, was cut short by the Obama administration for doing precisely that.

Read the full essay at Fair Observer.

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

Obama’s Disinterest in Europe: An Update

bored-obama-3Two earlier posts (here and here) argued that President Barack Obama has largely been disinterested in America’s European allies.  Although this view attracted criticism from those insisting I exaggerated the case, evidence has continued to roll in buttressing my position.

The newest piece of proof comes courtesy of DC Leaks, a website that has posted materials purloined from, among others, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.  Included in its collection are emails hacked from the personal Gmail account of General Philip Breedlove, who until recently served as NATO’s supreme military commander.

Two of Breedlove’s notes are particularly striking.  In the first, he writes to Colin Powell in September 2014, six months after Russia’s seizure of the Crimea peninsula, seeking the former U.S. Secretary of State’s assistance in re-energizing the Obama administration’s focus on European affairs.  Breedlove confides that “I do not see this [White House] as really ‘engaged’ on Europe/NATO.”

A second note in March 2015 concerns the extraordinary snub Mr. Obama had just delivered to Jens Stoltenberg, who months earlier had been appointed as NATO’s secretary general.  Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, all passed up a chance to confer with Stoltenberg during his visit to Washington even as Russian depredations against Ukraine continued.  According to a media report, Stoltenberg requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

Commenting on the incident, Breedlove laments to a friend that “This is a mess.  I do not understand our [White House].”

At a NATO summit two months ago, Obama declared that “in good times and in bad, Europe can count on the United States – always.”  But many of his actions have registered the opposite message, so much so that the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee even blames the president for begetting Donald Trump’s skepticism of the NATO alliance.  (For a similar view by a U.S. foreign policy pundit, see here.)

Eight years ago, Mr. Obama won over European hearts by promising not to conduct himself like George W. Bush and the continent gratefully responded by awarding him a Nobel peace prize in the mere anticipation he would live up to his promise.  He has indeed been true to his word, though very much not in a way European leaders had hoped.  Reflecting on Obama’s legacy for U.S.-European relations, Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain, recently concluded that “the lasting impression that Barack Obama will leave us [Europeans] with is one of disenchantment.”

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

Obama’s Intelligence Scandal: An Update

ImageAccording to news reports, a large group of intelligence analysts working at the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, have formally complained that their superiors altered assessments about the Islamic State and Al Qaeda in order to adhere more closely with the Obama administration’s public line that the military campaign against these groups is progressing well.  As I argued in a previous post, the emerging scandal exemplifies a long-running critique about Mr. Obama’s approach to foreign policy – that his national security inner team is excessively focused on the dictates of domestic politics and is not above squelching dissenting views.

The Daily Beast, which has taken the lead in breaking this story, now reports that the intelligence scandal has broader dimensions: Two senior analysts at CENTCOM, including the top expert on Syria, have been ousted from their positions due to their assessments casting doubt on the viability of the Obama administration’s plans to arm rebel groups fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.

In a separate report, the publication also claims that the CENTCOM work environment has turned “toxic” and “hostile” as top officials there have created a culture of intimidation.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that the House intelligence committee, which is conducting its own investigation into the scandal, has complained that CENTCOM is deleting relevant documents and harassing analysts it wishes to interview.

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

How Sincere were Obama’s Threats to Stop Iranian Nuclear Proliferation?

Jeffrey Goldberg’s detailed exposition in The Atlantic of Barack Obama’s foreign policy outlook has sparked a wave of media commentary as well as damage-limitation efforts by the White House.  Based on a series of far-reaching interviews with the U.S. president, the piece contains a number of fascinating revelations, including Obama’s high regard for his own decision-making ability and corresponding disdain for the leadership skills possessed by many of his counterparts on the world stage; his suspicion of Washington’s foreign policy cognoscenti who he believes adulate the idea of deterrence credibility and in any case reflect the interests of their Jewish and Arab benefactors; and his disregard for America’s traditional allies in Europe and the Middle East.  On this last point, Goldberg quotes Obama as saying “free riders aggravate me” – a sentiment that Donald Trump holds as well.

So far, however, the exegesis of Obama’s views has missed a fundamental issue: How can a president who makes plain his deep aversion to new strategic entanglements in the Middle East and believes (in Goldberg’s words) that the region “is no longer terribly important to American interests” also insist his earlier threats to use military force to stop Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons were entirely serious?

There is a gaping logical disconnect – nay, an outright contradiction – between these two tenets given that any military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure was bound to trigger even greater levels of regional violence and instability that Mr. Obama so obviously wants to keep at arm’s length.

Read the full essay at The Diplomat.

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

Obama and Europe’s Lament

My post a year ago about the breakdown in President Obama’s relations with European leaders elicited pushback from those insisting I exaggerated the discord.  But on-going developments have only bolstered my case.

Consider the report a few months ago by John Vinocur, formerly executive editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune (now re-named the International New York Times).  He noted a growing disenchantment among European political and policy elites with the caliber of Mr. Obama’s leadership on policy toward Russia as well as an increased willingness to give public expression to this view.  “The U.S. president is getting openly dissed,” is how he put it.  Moreover, the absence of American leadership was causing European officials to see no alternative but to make accommodations with Moscow.

A similar assessment is offered by Roger Cohen, formerly the New York Times’ foreign editor and Berlin bureau chief, who now writes an op-ed column.  In a piece earlier this month, he excoriated President Obama’s approach toward Syria for, among other things, contributing to “a potential unraveling of the core of the European Union as internal borders eliminated on a free continent are re-established as a response to an unrelenting refugee tide…”

Cohen quotes a senior European diplomat as saying: “The Syrian crisis is now a European crisis.  But the president is not interested in Europe.” Cohen adds: “That is a fair assessment of the first postwar American leader for whom the core trans-Atlantic alliance was something to be dutifully upheld rather than emotionally embraced.”

Likewise, Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports that the consensus among European officials and experts attending this year’s Munich Security Conference is that the Obama administration is simply unwilling to do anything substantial to address the multiple crises gripping the region.  He quotes a French policy leader as stating: “There is a growing sense that this U.S. administration is focused on establishing a legacy on what has already been achieved rather than trying to achieve anything more.”

Rogin adds…

During the first day of the conference, the U.S. role in Europe was hardly mentioned in the public sessions. In the private sessions, many participants told me that European governments are not only resigned to a lack of American assertiveness, they also are now reluctantly accepting a Russia that is more present than ever in European affairs, and not for the better.

Nine years ago, when Mr. Obama first embarked on his presidential campaign he differentiated himself from George W. Bush by stressing a determination to rebuild U.S. alliances with other countries.  And on the night when he was elected to the Oval Office he pledged that “a new dawn of American leadership” was at hand.  European leaders these days must wonder whatever happened to that guy.

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.

Obama’s Disingenuousness on Iran: A Postscript

This blog has regularly thrown doubt on the sincerity of President Obama’s past vows about being prepared to resort to military force in order to prevent Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  So it’s worth noting a New York Times article the other week surveying the various factors that could have pushed Tehran toward the just-implemented nuclear agreement with the United States.

The newspaper credits the inducements held out by Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic engagement, as well as the coercive effects of economic sanctions and covert programs aimed at sabotaging Iran’s nuclear weapons effort.  Another factor, according to the Times, was the threat of preventative military action – though by Israel but not the United States.

The Israeli factor was tangible enough.  Ehud Barak, who served as defense minister in Prime Minister’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s government from 2009-2013, revealed last year that Israel came close on several occasions to launching unilateral military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

According to an October 2014 report in The Atlantic, U.S. officials were convinced in 2010 and again in 2012, that “Netanyahu and his then-defense minister, the cowboyish ex-commando Ehud Barak, were readying a strike on Iran….the fear inside the White House of a preemptive attack (or preventative attack, to put it more accurately) was real and palpable.”

Referring to these occasions, the New York Times piece quotes Michael Morell, who recently retired as deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, as saying “Before the negotiations for the nuclear deal began [in 2013] we were closer to war with the Islamic Republic than at any time since 1979.”  The newspaper also notes:

Mr. Obama had little doubt that if Israel started a conflict, the United States would be unable to stay out. That was the conclusion of a series of classified war-gaming exercises conducted at the National War College, at the Pentagon and inside American intelligence agencies.

It is difficult to discern what effect the fear of Israeli action had on Tehran’s calculus.  But its impact on Washington is already known.  In the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations two years ago, President Obama announced that the U.S. would no longer intercept the communications of allied leaders.  But a secret exception was made for Mr. Netanyahu, since the White House was convinced he would attack Iran without first bothering to consult with Washington.

Satellite surveillance of Israeli military bases was also stepped up after the U.S. concluded that Israeli aircraft had probed Iranian air defenses in preparation for a commando raid on Iran’s most heavily guarded nuclear facility.  And the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military forces in the Middle East, began monitoring weather patterns and the phases of the moon over Iran, trying to predict the exact night of the coming Israeli attack.

All of this evidence further reinforces my earlier conclusion that Obama’s threat to pick up the cudgel of military action was a rhetorical device aimed more at restraining the Israeli government than pressuring the Iranian one.

This post is jointly published at International Policy Digest.

I invite you to connect with me via Facebook and Twitter.