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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Obama’s Disingenuousness on Iran: An Update

My last post claimed vindication for my long-standing position that President Obama was being disingenuous when in the run-up to the Iranian nuclear negotiations he insisted he was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran’s atomic ambitions.  In my view, the tough talk was a show intended more to restrain the prospect of Israeli military action rather than coerce Iranian behavior, especially in the key 2012-2013 period.

As I noted in a series of posts back then (see hereherehere and here), a chorus of distinguished Middle East experts had lined up on the other side of the argument.  Among them was Dennis Ross, who oversaw White House policy toward Tehran for a good part of Mr. Obama’s first term.  Three years back, he asserted that “I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails [to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons] — to use force.”

Mr. Ross elaborates on this point in his just-published book, excerpts of which appear in Politico.  He reports that President Obama early in his administration directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and that measures were taken to strengthen the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf.

Yet the evidence Ross proffers cuts both ways, as when he acknowledges that the additional deployments of missile defenses and naval forces were motivated in part by a desire to be ready for Iranian retaliation in the event Israel undertook its own military action against Tehran, a contingency that much worried the Obama White House.  He notes too that the Israeli government regularly suspected that the Obama administration had gone wobbly on Iran.  In fact, by late 2013 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu concluded (wrongly, Ross insists) that Mr. Obama had lost the personal will to keep up the military and economic pressure on Tehran.

Ross also outlines the sharp lack of consensus within the Obama administration over the ultimate aim of U.S. policy – that is, whether Washington should be prepared to back up its rhetoric with military force in the event Iran did develop nuclear weapons or acquiesce to this event and work to contain the regional military consequences.  As he puts it …

… there was debate over whether we should use force to prevent the Iranians from crossing the threshold if crippling economic sanctions, isolation and diplomatic pressure and negotiations failed to do so. [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates and Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, made it clear that we were in two wars in the region and that was quite enough. They were not soft on Iran, but they were not in favor of the use of force if all other means failed to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit.

(By the way, this debate found public expression in a May 2013 report on the challenges of containing a nuclear-armed Iran, which was put out by a Washington think tank with close ties to the Obama administration. It argued that a policy of containment “may eventually become the only path left.” Significantly, the report’s co-author was Colin H. Kahl, who had served as the Defense Department’s point person on the Middle East for much of the administration’s first term.  Noteworthy too is that Kahl rejoined the administration a year ago as Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor.)

Where Mr. Obama came down in this internal debate is unclear.  Ross contends he urged the president in early 2010 to jettison the vague statement that Iran nuclear proliferation was “unacceptable” in favor of a stiffer formulation along the lines that the U.S. was “determined to prevent” this outcome.  Obama finally accepted the more definitive language but only after thinking about it overnight.  It is striking though that even this formulation is not as robust as the bold redline the president drew in mid-2012 regarding Syrian chemical weapons use and then ultimately abandoned when his bluff was called.

Indeed, looking at the contours of Mr. Obama’s current policy on Syria – especially the conspicuous doubts about the efficacy of U.S. military power and the obvious desire for strategic retrenchment from the Greater Middle East – it remains difficult to pay any credence to Mr. Obama’s earlier words on Iran.

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Obama’s Disingenuousness on Iran

Depending on one’s perspective, President Obama’s address at American University earlier this month was either a rousing defense of the Iran nuclear agreement or an egregious instance of political demagoguery. But one thing the speech underscores with certainty is that Mr. Obama’s earlier vows that he was prepared to use military force to prevent Tehran’s atomic ambitions were disingenuous.

Now that the Iranian nuclear agreement is complete, Mr. Obama’s lack of sincerity is equally apparent in his insistence that the deal’s rejection would put America on the path toward another major conflict in the Middle East.

Read the rest of the essay at The Diplomat.

In a series of posts in 2012 and 2013 (see here, here, here and here), I voiced my skepticism about the credibility of the Obama administration’s tough talk.  As I noted then, a chorus of distinguished Middle East experts insisted I had it wrong.  Dennis Ross, who oversaw White House policy toward Tehran for a good part of Mr. Obama’s first term, commented that “I think there’s the stomach in this administration, and this president, that if diplomacy fails [to deter Iran from developing nuclear weapons] — to use force.”  Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security advisor to President George W. Bush and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, concurred, as did James F. Jeffrey, who oversaw Iran policy in the Bush White House before serving as the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad from 2010-2012.  And Michael Crowley at Time magazine took the same line, describing Obama as “entirely prepared for war with Iran.”

But in light of events over the past few years, I claim vindication on this point.

UPDATE, August 26: Writing today in Real Clear World, Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert who has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, argues that President Obama’s policy in the region is characterized by “high-flying rhetoric” and “making commitments upon which he cannot deliver.”  He notes:

When you do not or will not act, words become substitutes for deeds. Part of the problem may be that the administration sees the world the way it wants it to be, not the way it really is. Perhaps part of the issue is a desire to deflect pressure by the use of bold words. Whatever the explanation, to have credibility in foreign policy you must say what you mean, and mean what you say. Sadly, far too many times, the Obama administration has done exactly the opposite.

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Obama’s NATO Snub is a Familiar Story

This month’s headlines chronicling the breakdown in U.S.-Israeli affairs and the personal disdain between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have overshadowed the continuing dysfunctions in Washington’s relations with its traditional allies in Europe.

Josh Rogin at Bloomberg View reports that Mr. Obama has delivered what can only be regarded as an extraordinary snub to Jens Stoltenberg, who became the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization six months ago.  Obama is one of the few Western leaders not yet to have met with Stoltenberg and has deliberately passed up a chance to see him this week when Stoltenberg is in Washington.  Rogin notes that the NATO chief was able to arrange a last-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, though he requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit but never heard back from the White House.

The upshot is that Obama is missing a good opportunity to firm up NATO solidarity in the face of Moscow’s on-going predations against Ukraine.  As Rogin concludes, “the message Russian President Vladimir Putin will take away is that the White House-NATO relationship is rocky, and he will be right.”  Moreover, given that Stoltenberg is a two-time prime minister of Norway, a meeting would have sent a powerful message to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Denmark that are facing increased Russian provocations (here, here and here).

As I noted in an earlier post, Mr. Obama’s disinterest in America’s European allies is a long-standing story.  Beyond the foreign policy consequences of how the president has mismanaged relations with the continent, a surfeit of irony is also at work.  His promise to repair the damaged ties caused by the acrimony over the Iraq war guaranteed him euphoric welcomes in Berlin in July 2008 and in Prague the following spring.  Speaking before a massive crowd assembled in Berlin’s “Tiergarten” (speech text here; video here), he grandly vowed to “remake the world once again,” this time in a way that allies would “listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.”  That pledge is now so yesterday that some European leaders are reportedly longing for the days of George W. Bush.

[UPDATE, April 1: A more detailed version of this post is now up on The National Interest‘s website.]

[UPDATE, February 15, 2016: According to a new Bloomberg View report, the consensus among European officials and experts attending this year’s Munich Security Conference is that the Obama administration is prepared to continue sitting on the sidelines as the continent grapples with a series of critical issues.

Also worth noting is last week’s column in the New York Times by Roger Cohen, the newspaper’s former foreign editor.  He quotes a senior European diplomat as saying that Mr. Obama “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.”]

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