As strange as it seems, President Barack Obama and Republican contender Donald Trump actually see eye-to-eye on America’s new international role. Both are ‘American Firsters’. After the Bush era that squandered much blood and treasure in the Middle East, the American foreign policy pendulum has swung the other way. Not total isolationism, but in line with public opinion in the US today. It is a more Machiavellian approach or cost-benefit analysis when it comes to America’s vital interests.
But wait just a minute – isn’t Obama an ivory tower law professor without a clue about running a realistic foreign policy? Does he really plan what he’s doing? Even former US defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta have said that Obama was led by the nose by such young and inexperienced advisers as Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes. Not really. They were working hand in glove with Obama and understood exactly what he wanted. Rather than follow in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt’s dictum of ‘talk softly but carry a big stick’, they were in tune with Obama’s version of ‘talk tough but drop the big stick‘.
Case in point: Syrian tyrant Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons. After the initial use was verified, Obama solemnly wowed ‘There will be consequences if Assad repeats it!’ Alas, Assad called Obama’s bluff, most likely with Putin’s backing. Within hours, Secretary of State John Kerry, breathing fire and fury, warned this was the final straw, get ready for all hell to break loose. The world waited with baited breath, America’s military would now come down on Assad’s war crimes. But alas for Kerry, he was left out of the White house loop and his tough talk, as the Secretary is wont to say, went ‘poof’!
Behind the scenes, Obama had opened a back-door channel to the new Russian tsar. The Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean off of Syria’s shore’s sailed on its peaceful course without launching any of its mighty Cruise missiles in Assad’s direction. Obama was on the ‘hot line’ to Moscow trying to cool off the simmering situation. Before they hung up, Putin had agreed to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and Obama was off the hook. Never mind that the deal guaranteed the survival of the Assad regime with Putin’s massive military aid. (The rebels had Assad on the ropes, which was the reason that the Syrian tyrant had dared use the chemical weapons despite Obama’s dire warning). After Obama had opened the door, Putin dispatched his warplanes to bomb just about anything that moved on the rebel side – they had lots of practice in Chechnya. And so, Moscow’s major military mission guaranteed Assad’s survival and the continued blood bath.
It’s possible to read these events at least two ways. First, after Assad used chemical weapons, Obama had no choice but to tell the world this was unacceptable, which he did. But on second thought… America came first. It is hard to believe the leader of the free world did not have a back-up plan if a third world dictator called his bluff. Can you imagine Obama calling an urgent meeting of his national security advisers and asking, ‘Gee, guys what do we do now, I sure as hell do not want to get us involved in another Mid-East war? Hell, I got the Nobel Peace Prize!’
It’s possible but not probable. What is likely is ‘America First’ Obama knew he could ring Putin in Moscow: ‘Look Vladimir, if you can dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal we can defuse this critical crisis that neither you nor I want’. Putin jumped at the offer realizing it was his big chance to take charge in Syria and reinforce his key naval base at Tartus on the Mediterranean. But in retrospect Obama has said he is the one who put one over on Putin! Russia is now stuck with a can of worms.
Meanwhile, the entirety of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile has not been dismantled and there are reports that he has used them again. Russian and Syrian warplanes have bombed the city of Aleppo mercilessly, killing and wounding hundreds of civilians at the very same time that Obama was cracking jokes at the WHC dinner in Washington. As for Daesh, does anyone really believe the US armed forces could not wipe out the Daesh forces, mounted mostly on Toyota pick-up trucks, if it really wanted to? But of course there would be some American casualties.
To his credit, Obama has not tried to hide the cornerstone of his foreign policy. In fact, he made it crystal clear during his first term. He promised US paratroopers that he would never put them in harm’s way unless America’s vital strategic interests were at stake. Obama then proceeded to open another back-door channel – the one to Iran. With Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu breathing down his neck, Obama quickly realized he had to strike a deal with the Ayatollahs or else Israel might preempt and draw the US into war with Iran. It took some doing, but again, Obama got his deal and avoided a war with Iran, at least not on his watch.
Obama applies ‘America First’ not only in the Middle East but also the Far East where North Korea is just as kooky as Iran, Syria or Daesh. Note this recent reference by Obama to the potential nuclear threat posed by North Korea:
‘We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals, but aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, The Republic of Korea’.
The President was reassuring the American people that the US can eliminate the North Korean threat whenever it likes. Substitute Iran for North Korea and Israel for South Korea – more or less the same thinking applies. On the other hand, Obama has kept American military aid flowing to Israel despite the feud with Bibi. As long as North Korea or Iran do not acquire nuclear weapons and ICBMs that can reach America, that policy will likely continue whether it’s Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders sitting in the White House.
Contrary to what many believe, Obama has run a hands-on diplomacy in the Middle East while ‘leading from behind’ when it comes to any new military involvement. If Arab oil was no longer a strategic interest, Obama saw no reason to put his troops at risk. In other words, it’s time for the rest of the world, primarily the West Europeans, to pitch in more. Egypt and Saudi Arabia are now more expendable, and even Israel, although it enjoys popular support in the US, is no longer sacrosanct.
As for Donald Trump, there is no way of knowing what kind of foreign policy he would adopt if elected. Despite some of his outrageous statements, he is unpredictable. Most likely Trump himself still has no idea. If ‘Make America Great Again’ is his motto, it is reasonable to surmise that he will cut military aid to ‘foreign freeloaders’. Might that include the Jewish state? Probably not. He has just backed Israeli settlement building. Notably, Trump has spoken favorably about Putin as if they were two tough customers who could do business together. Would they get along like ‘Good Fellas’ in the Hollywood movie about Mafia leaders?
If Obama was able to work with Putin, why couldn’t Trump? And if Obama has been continually pulling in America’s horns abroad, why won’t Trump do the same, if he really means to ‘Make America Great Again’? The Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union pitted communism against capitalism for world domination. This ideological contest no longer exists, and now it is about nations trying to ‘maximize their profits’- traditional capitalism.
Israel & Hamas battling over terror tunnels…
The Palestinians in Gaza are pissed! And maybe with good reason. The IDF has developed a new high-tech answer to uncover the terror tunnels Hamas has been building under the Gaza border into Israel. Last month, one was shown to the media, dug some forty meters underground, reinforced with concrete that Israel allows into Gaza to rebuild homes. After Netanyahu visited the site, the IDF blew it up. Now another tunnel has been uncovered and Israeli engineering equipment is busy along the border searching for more. In response, Hamas, for the first time since the summer war in 2014, has opened up with mortar fire in the vicinity of the Israeli search teams, trying to drive them off.
In return, Israeli aircraft and tanks have taken pot shots into Gaza. Strangely enough, neither side is trying to inflict casualties that could escalate the confrontation. Hamas simply wants to warn the IDF away from their tunnels, which the Palestinians want to exploit for surprise raids into Israeli communities over the border. But Israel is not playing ball and will continue to ferret out the tunnels. So far there have been no Israeli casualties while one Palestinian woman has been killed in this weird confrontation. But if one mortar or rocket goes astray and inflicts greater casualties on one side or the other, it could spark a major conflagration.
In addition, Israel’s Security Service, Shabak, has apparently caught a top Hamas tunnel builder. Identified as Mahmoud Atuna, he has spilled the beans about more of the tunnels, which Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon vows to uncover. In short, this could be a game-changer because Hamas was counting on the terror tunnels as the ace up its sleeve for activating when the time is right to launch yet another offensive against Israel.
IDF General overshoots his target…
The Memorial Day marking the six million victims of the Holocaust is a day of somber reflection in Israel. Sirens wail for two minutes and the country comes to a halt while the harrowing tales of the last survivors are recounted on TV and radio. This time, Deputy Chief of the IDF, Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, did some reflecting that sparked a public uproar. In a public address, Gen. Golan noted his concern that several events in Israel reminded him of the situation in Germany 70 and 80 years ago. His intention was that Israel must be constantly on guard against such things ever happening here.
While it is true that when fighting a vicious, and at times sadistic, enemy, which is trying to annihilate you, there is a danger of also adopting a brutal response. And indeed it is the responsibility of a democracy’s leadership to be constantly on guard against adopting the brutality of an enemy. And while Gen. Golan stressed the IDF is constantly doing so and did not refer to the Nazi Wehrmacht, he did err in alluding to it in any context.
Cases in point: An IDF soldier is now facing a court-martial possibly on charges of manslaughter for shooting dead a wounded Palestinian terrorist lying in the street after he and another accomplice had stabbed another IDF soldier. Israeli officers at the scene believed the Palestinian no longer posed a threat and therefore did not kill him. The soldier in question acted otherwise. IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkot defended the decision to arrest and try the soldier – however, this triggered a public debate on whether all terrorists who come to murder Israelis should be shot dead. Defense Minister Ya’alon defended the decision for a court martial, as did Prime Minister Netanyahu at first, but later said it was not such a clear-cut case.
There is no question about two other cases that have shocked the country. A group of Right wing fanatics firebombed the home of a Palestinian family, burning alive the parents and a toddler in the West Bank village of Duma. A fourth child was badly burned. After an intensive investigation, the Shabak Security Service caught the Jewish terrorists who will soon be tried as minors.
In another horrific case, an Israeli man lead two Israeli minors in burning alive a Palestinian youth in retaliation for the Palestinian kidnapping and shooting dead of three Israeli teenagers. The Israeli terrorists were caught. The adult ringleader, after a psychiatric examination, has been sentenced to life, while the other juveniles were tried in juvenile court.
These two vile Israeli attacks were condemned across the political spectrum. But it is true that there is a small but dangerous group of Right wing fanatics who will stoop to anything. One of them murdered Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But for Gen. Golan to make such a vast leap from Israel of today with any allusion to Nazi Germany was a big mistake. On the other hand, how many armies in the world have one of their top generals, a candidate to become next IDF Chief of Staff willing risk his career, because he wants to do the right thing – even if he overshot his target.