Coming late and out of breath from the unusual bout of exertion, the US today decided that the rebels, The Transitional Government" is the only legitimate game in Libya. The US has extended full diplomatic recognition to the far less than coherent bunch in Benghazi. The practical effect of this move is the freeing of the billions of Gaddafi bucks languishing in American custody, impounded under UN sanctions.
The American extension of recognition comes long after similar acts by the UK and France as well as other, lesser members of the anti-Gaddafi coalition. The reasons for the lengthy American delay are inscrutable although it may be contended that Mr Obama has been too involved with negotiating a treaty over the deficit with his Republican interlocutors to have had much time to waste on minor matters such as Libya.
Arguably, there was no real need to grant diplomatic recognition and the international legitimacy that entails in order to give the Libyan money back to the Libyans in the personage of the Transitional Government. Arguably, the granting of diplomatic recognition was premature in that the nature of the Benghazi crew is not exactly pellucid. It is still unclear as to who holds the balance of power in the Transitional Government--the advocates of violent political Islam (some of whom have pulled triggers against Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan) or the secularists. There is no way of being sure that the end result of the regime change will be more or less favorable to American national and strategic interests.
There is a larger reason to have not extended the prize of diplomatic recognition to the Lads In Benghazi. The US has no direct stake in the country. Other than the general imperative of countering the actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the US has no definite or definable interests in play. That reality enough was enough to have militated against our involvement in the air campaign against Gaddafi and Company. It is also sufficient to undercut any push to granting enhanced status to the rebels whose interests more likely than not do not run in parallel with our own.
There is something even more disquieting contained within the delayed but unnecessary recognition of the rebels as the only legitimate government in Libya. It is the same disquieting factor already seen in play with the vacillating policy regarding Mubarak and the "Lotus Revolution" in Egypt or the similarly disconnected set of moves masquerading as policy regarding Syria.
The disquieting, not to say alarming, dynamic at work in Libya, Syria, and Egypt is that of indecision, lack of focus, and an apparent unwillingness to engage in the messier, less pleasant aspects of diplomacy. The Nice Young Man From Chicago is too given to compromise, too willing to evade responsibility, too averse to making clear cut decisions and holding to them (unless a basic tenet of his ideology is at work) to engage in the risky business of establishing and hewing to a foreign policy. While the Secretary of State may not be as averse to muscular diplomacy, it has become evident that Ms Clinton lacks the capacity to differentiate between that which is really important and those options which simply appeal on an emotional level.
One of the inevitable results of the Obama approach to foreign policy has been that of eroding confidence in the will of the US to undertake difficult actions. An excellent example of this is the Saudi decision to broaden their weapons acquisition efforts to include Germany and Russia. The movers and shakers among the gerontocracy running the Kingdom have concluded that the US is unreliable even as a source of expensive hardware.
The Saudis have noted with interest and no doubt considerable apprehension the way in which the US under both George W. Bush and Mr Obama has evaded the formal request by Taiwan to purchase sixty new generation F-16 aircraft. In doing so the Obama administration has blatantly violated the law, specifically the law requiring the US to see to Taiwan's defense needs as defined by Taiwan not the US. Considering that not selling the F-16s to Taiwan will result in the loss of thousands of good paying jobs during economically tenuous times, not even American self-interest can offset the stifling influence of Beijing on US policy.
If Beijing can put the screws to the US such that American jobs are sacrificed along with the law and US interests in Asia, Prince Bandar among others must have reasoned, what are the odds that at some point the US will go lame in an area crucial to Saudi existential interests? Right now only one feature ties US interests to those of the Saudis.
No, bucko, not oil. The only real coinciding national interests between ourselves and the Saudis is fear and loathing of Iran. It is important in this context to underscore the importance of the recent high profile allegations of Iranian complicity in lethal attacks on US service personnel in Iraq. These statements are aimed in part at the bootless excuse for a central government in Iraq to be sure. But there is a far more important audience.
That more important group of auditors is located in Tehran. In a real sense the comments regarding Iranian sponsorship of the attacks on Americans stands as a proxy for the most recent developments in the Iranian nuclear weapons program. The Iranians have installed examples of two next gen centrifuges. More importantly, these as well as hundreds of the older, less efficient models have been placed in hardened, underground facilities.
Taken together, these twin, interlocking developments make manifest the nature of the Iranian nuclear effort. It is focused on getting the bomb. Period. There is no need for any more discussion on that aspect of the Iranian nuke program.
Rather, the only place for discussion is on the general question of options available to the US. In this discussion the unique Obama approach to policy in the Mideast becomes relevant, highly so. As the administration's fit-and-start facsimile of policy in Libya, Syria, and Egypt demonstrates, it is germane to ask whether or not the US will deign to lead from the front.
"Leading from behind" is not, as the White House creator of the term must have believed, a feat of brilliant statesmanship putting Obama on a par with Bismark or Talleyrand, but rather a total abdication of leadership. As the resulting mess in Libya shows in full color and stereo sound, the concept of leading from the rear is not only intellectually bankrupt but operationally equates with self-inflicted defeat. A robust, albeit unpopular, US presence at the head of the NATO pack would have allowed a bad policy to be redeemed from the failure it so richly deserved. The absence of the Americans in any meaningful, violent way from the effort has assured that the bad policy would fail, and, worse, would fail in a way which rebounded to the discredit of NATO as well as key allies.
Despite the documented successes of the sanctions imposed on Iran, most notably those impinging on maritime trade, the mullahs move closer to the "Mahdi Bomb" with every spin of every centrifuge. This means that push-comes-to-shove time looms closer by the day, by the hour. We the People place great faith in the efficacy of diplomatic and economic sanctions as the best form of coercive diplomacy. In doing so, the American public overlooks the unpleasant reality that the effectiveness of sanctions rests in the last analysis on the perceived will and ability of the imposer of sanctions to use military force should the sanctions fail.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the Iranian government and the mullahs behind it are convinced the US lacks the will to use military force. They may (in private) be willing to grant that the US has the material capacity to destroy not only the nuclear facilities but Iran, but they are of the view that mere material ability is irrelevant. The mullahs are right in this. Ability without political will is simply so much very expensive hardware.
The Iranians are not alone in this appreciation. The Israeli government shares it. Benjamin Netanyahu along with the majority of his cabinet and party are convinced that the US is a toothless tiger regarding the looming Iranian threat. They are also certain that the Obama administration is already willing to adjust its policy to an Iran with nuclear capabilities along with the implications this brings to the region and the world. A similar sense of things must be growing as well in Saudi Arabia and other conservative Gulf states.
The current government of Israel is both crazy enough and filled with existential dread enough to go it alone in a strike on the Iranian nuclear plant. There may even be a lingering belief that should Israel start the war, the US must join in. If nothing else, the Netanyahu ministry probably believes that should Israel mount the first strikes and cause a mass attack in return by Iran and its closer adjuncts in Lebanon and Gaza, the American congress will do the necessary heavy lifting to assure the US moves fast and hard to bring the new war to a successful conclusion.
Given the power of the Israel Lobby in Congress, the Israeli calculus is not irrational. It is a realistic reading of the political landscape of the US. Even though an Israeli originated war with Iran would be devastating to the fragile American (and global) economic recovery, the US would have very few choices other than to join the fight with the goal of bringing the war to the most rapid and decisive conclusion.
The most rapid and decisive ending to an Israeli-Iranian war would be the total destruction of the Iranian governmental, military, and economic infrastructure. The US could accomplish this using only conventional munitions, but the job would be longer and more difficult than might be presumed at the outset. As the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have shown, the ancient saw holding that wars are always longer and more difficult to end than seems to be the case at the beginning has not been obviated by changes in technology.
A war between Israel (and the US) on the one side and Iran (and its proxies) on the other would be a world historical event. But, the obtaining of a nuclear capacity by Iran would prove to be such as well. This means the matter is a choice regarding the perceived lesser of two evils.
To the Israelis, particularly the government of Netanyahu, the choice is a no-brainer. To the US, the choice is not so simple and clear cut. However, to be in the position to make a choice, the US, and, more specifically the Obama administration, must be universally perceived as a leader. In this context it is critical to recall that the most effective form of leadership is leadership from the front.
The leader, as the Infantry School at Fort Benning makes plain, shouts, "Follow me!" The leader does not say, "Go ahead, I'm right behind you."
As today's decision regarding the rebels in Libya shows, Mr Obama has not yet learned this vital fact. By default he has handed control of the future of the US and the world to Benjamin Netanyahu. That is not a failure of policy. It is not even a simple error of judgement. It is a world class blunder.