The Obama Foreign Policy Record

WASHINGTON – The almost universally accepted narrative dished out daily by the serious, high brow U.S. media is that come January 20, 2017, with Donald Trump as President, we shall have 4 years of “Amateur Hour” in U.S. foreign policy. This dismal prospect is of course a far cry from the thoughtful, insightful and properly balanced foreign policy agenda expertly crafted and implemented by President Barack Obama and his top-notch foreign and national security policy team.

The incompetents are taking over

We are told by savvy analysts that, all of sudden, from reliable, steady competence that  –as we all should know– raised American prestige worldwide, we shall plunge into an abyss of policy mayhem stirred by dangerous ignorance mixed with laughable (or dangerous) braggadocio, with a stupendously unqualified Commander in Chief at the helm.

Condescension 

This narrative is another expression of the Olympian condescension of the perennially entitled leaders of the Washington foreign affairs establishment. They simply cannot get used to the reality of a complete outsider, with no real hands-on experience in this field until now reserved to few insiders, now in charge.

Trump is inexperienced  

True, Trump is inexperienced. He may indeed fail in foreign policy, and we should not take this prospect lightly, as there are bound to be consequences. On the other hand, he may not fail, after all. Trump will have a team working for him. Most of the people he picked thus far have considerable international and national security experience.

Right mix? 

That said, has he chosen the right mix of people? Even more important, when confronted with difficult decisions, in murky situations when there is no obvious right policy choice, will Trump have the right instincts? Will he manage to safeguard –better yet, advance–  the American National Interest? Quite frankly, we do not know yet. Time will tell.

Obama’s record

However, while we can only speculate about the future, we do know a great deal about the Obama Team foreign policy record. And, no, it is not stellar. Contrary to the official narrative, the supposedly expert hands that have been in charge until now are not shining stars. And Obama is no great leader when it comes to directing U.S. foreign affairs. Hesitation, mixed messages and retreat have defined American foreign policy under his stewardship.

Now, after George W. Bush’s profoundly ill-advised pro-democracy enthusiasm which led America into two horrendously costly and mostly unsuccessful wars –Afghanistan and then Iraq–  a new foreign policy guided by restraint was indeed a welcome change after the 2008 elections. But there is a huge distinction between careful, calculated withdrawal behind defensible lines, while spelling out U.S. continuing strategic priorities, and policy confusion leading to retreat.

Allowing chaos in Iraq

In Iraq, President Barack Obama used Baghdad’s intransigence regarding the legal status of U.S. troops which would stay on after December 2011 as a good excuse for ending the negotiation with then Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. With no deal with Baghdad in place, the U.S. pulled completely out of Iraq at the end of 2011.

At that time Iraq was a relatively stable but still fragile and politically split country (Sunni in the North, Shia in the South) in which America had invested an enormous amount of resources. Pulling out completely while the wounds had not healed was an ill-advised and in the end horribly wrong decision.

To this day, President Obama claims he had no choice, given the uncooperative stance of the Baghdad government. But this is nonsense. If the Obama administration really wanted a deal with Prime Minister al-Maliki that would have allowed a substantial U.S. military presence after 2011 it would have found a way to get one.

Get out

The fact is that Obama wanted out of Iraq, entirely for domestic political reasons. He wanted out of Iraq in order to show to the American people that he had made good on a major campaign promise: he had brought all the troops home. And, in fact, later on he repeatedly bragged about this “accomplishment” represented by the closing of the Iraq War chapter. Which is to say that concerns about Obama’s popularity at home caused America to essentially abandon a country in which it had invested years, hundreds of billions, and so many lives of killed U.S. soldiers.

Could sizable American troops stationed in Iraq have prevented the steady descent into chaos that followed their departure? We do not know for sure. But it is not far-fetched to believe that they could have helped keep things together.

Belated U-turn in 2014 

That said, Obama was forced to make a complete U-Turn on Iraq when this deeply divided country was confronted with an invasion masterminded in 2014 by the Islamic State, or ISIL from its bases in Eastern Syria. A massive invasion, by the way, that the sophisticated Obama intelligence leaders never saw coming.

With no U.S. troops on the ground, (thanks to Obama’s complete troops withdrawal decided back in December 2011), ISIL breezed, mostly unopposed, into Northern Iraq. In a matter of days it took over Mosul –the second largest city in the country– and the entire North West of Iraq. An eyewitness quoted by The Guardian said that:

“The city [Mosul] fell like a plane without an engine. They [ISIL] were firing their weapons into the air, but no one was shooting at them.”

Beyond taking over Mosul, ISIL captured vast amounts of cash and a huge arsenal of U.S. supplied weapons and material, simply because the Iraqi troops had run away.

So, here is the upshot regarding Obama’s record on Iraq: U.S. troops out; ISIL in. The Caliphate takes over 1/3 of the country within days. America forced to move back in. But slowly and with hesitation. Meanwhile, militias funded by Iran spread through the country. This is complete policy failure.

Surge in Afghanistan? 

In Afghanistan, President Obama started with an almost comical public debate in the Fall of 2009 (first year of his mandate) about what U.S. policy should be regarding the continuing Taliban insurgency. Obama finally ended the deliberations in November 2009 with a commitment to a “Iraq-like” surge in Afghanistan. But it was a surge accompanied by a publicly announced withdrawal timetable.

Yes it was just like that. Washington would send additional troops aimed at stabilizing this perennially chaotic country; but only for a short while. How ill-advised. You go to war not to shoot around a little bit, and then go home. You go to war to win. Or you do not go at all. Result? 20016 is over and the war in Afghanistan is still going on. This is another failure due to Washington’s indecisiveness and half measures.

Get rid of Ghaddafi 

Then there was Libya, and the ill-conceived idea of toppling dictator Ghaddafi, without even a thought of a game plan about what to do afterwards. Result? Ghaddafi was toppled and he is certainly dead. But so is Libya, now a failed state torn apart by various warring militias. This is failure number three.

Hesitation about Syria 

And what about Syria? in 2011, at the beginning of the Arab Spring, President Obama declared that President Assad heavy-handed repression of initially peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations was intolerable. Assad, Obama declared, “had to go”.

Strong words. However, this clear statement of a U.S. policy objective –nothing but regime change would do for Syria– lacked even the semblance of a policy aimed at obtaining the outcome: make Assad go.

This incoherence between grandiose objectives and no policy to implement them was only the beginning of a half-hearted U.S. policy in support of some factions within the Syrian opposition.

Military planners should know that a little bit of support is not enough. In war, either you are in or you are out. Even if your method is to support the opposition, as opposed to sending your own troops, you have to be with them all the way. Support to your side in the conflict has to be decisive. The objective must be victory.

Media criticism 

Well, even the serious usually pro-Obama media, after years of U.S. half measures, recognized that Syria is a huge policy failure for Obama. this is a BBC analysis dated October 2015:

“[Regarding Syria] the philosophical discussion at the White House was heated and fierce, leading to stalemate, not resolution.

For years Obama and his deputies refused to say categorically: we’re not doing this. Instead a decision was postponed.

Four years later, the result is a splintered Syrian opposition, the growth of the Islamic State group and a humanitarian disaster stretching across Europe.

Last year, in a move that was more symbolic than serious, Obama asked Congress for money to fund a programme allowing US personnel to teach rebels marksmanship, navigation and other skills.

The goal was to train about 15,000 rebels in Jordan and other countries so they could return to Syria and fight. However, US defence officials admitted last month [September 2015] that only four or five of the recruits in the programme had actually returned to the battle.”

It ended badly

And this was the BBC, a fairly sympathetic voice. A year later, things got only worse. The result of years of U.S. policy confusion and half measures is a semi-destroyed Syria, Russian massive intervention in support of Assad, the Iranians and Hezbollah firmly planted there, a defeated opposition just driven out of Aleppo, not to mention untold numbers of dead people and millions of refugees. And now, a new ceasefire was arranged by Russia in partnership with Turkey and Iran. The U.S. is not even at the table. Talk about American retreat. This is a colossal policy failure.

ISIL in Iraq 

And then there is ISIL in Iraq, the worst consequence of the U.S. total military withdrawal from the country it had invaded back in March of 2003. In a speech to the Nation, on September 10, 2014, President Obama sounded really tough about ISIL and the threat that it represented for the region and indeed the world.

He declared that:“Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”.

It sounded that America really meant business. To begin with, Obama told the world that Washington had assembled a powerful coalition of 66 countries. Impressive? Not so much. If you care to dig just a little bit, you discover that this unbeatable anti-ISIL Armada includes heavyweights like Luxembourg, Somalia, Iceland, Bosnia, Bahrain, Romania, Cyprus, Estonia, Panama, Montenegro, Latvia and Albania. Are you still impressed?

Painfully slow progress 

And the American military effort has also been modest. Two years later, while there have been significant successes against ISIL, we are still not done. Coalition supported Iraqi forces, (by the way this would also include support from Iran) are getting closer to Mosul; but they are still far from retaking it and eventually driving ISIL out of Iraq, let alone “destroying” it, as Obama pledged.

This is almost inconceivable. ISIL is a bunch of nasty thugs who use barbaric methods. But ISIL is not the German Wehrmacht smashing France, or the Japanese Imperial Army conquering Manchuria or the Philippines. It is a rag-tag, third-rate military force. it is unbelievable that America, with the largest and most technologically advanced military force in the world, could not destroy the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate in a matter of weeks.

To the contrary, a recent Washington Post story indicated that this battle against ISIL is going to be long slug:

“.[…].But a full offensive to retake the city [of Raqqa, de facto capital of ISIL] could still be months or more away, despite hopes in Washington that an operation to take the Islamic State’s most symbolically significant stronghold would be well underway before President Obama left office.”

This slow and uneven progress is the military outcome of policy confusion and partial military engagement. Despite Obama’s clear commitment a couple of year ago, the mighty U.S. still has not managed to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL”.  

Pivot to Asia? 

And there are many more examples of grand plans that yielded little. Consider the pivot to Asia. Nice idea; but little to show in terms of results. Suffice to say that China, just as America publicly committed to shift its policy focus on Asia, has managed to increase its sphere of influence throughout most of the South China Sea –essentially unchallenged.

True, the Obama administration made all the right noises when confronted with the evidence that China is busy building up and militarizing small islands scattered across the South China Sea that it occupied with the bogus justification that these rocks (some of which do not even qualify as “land” according to international law) have always been under Chinese sovereignty.

The Obama administration has not been able to challenge this creeping Chinese expansion, nor has it been capable or willing to persuade the Chinese to retreat and get out.

Iran

I am purposely leaving out of this analysis the Iran nuclear deal, because it is a lot more complicated than these other issues, and because in Iran’s case the Obama administration acted with purpose towards a fairly clear policy objective: freeze the Iranian nuclear program. And this objective has been reached. While there are many vocal critics of the deal, none of them seem to have a better plan. Just getting out of a “bad deal” without having anything to replace it will not yield better outcomes.

Obama’s retreat 

Anyway, you get the picture. Clearly, it is always easy to point out foreign policy failures with the benefit of hindsight.  Of course, it would be completely unfair to blame Obama for an Arab World in chaos, and other major troubles.

Still, the net result of Obama’s 8 years in office is not stellar.

All in all, U.S. policies regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and ISIL reveal a pattern of hesitation, in fact genuine confusion, and the inability to define, articulate and pursue what in Obama’s mind is the U.S. national interest.

What U.S. retreat signals to the world 

It would be disingenuous to conclude that all these failures, mixed messages and retreats from the world stage do not matter, because America after all is still the most powerful country on earth.

It is obvious that other political leaders around the world look at both American military capabilities and American political will. If they conclude that America lost its will, its powerful military forces will not deter as much as they used to.

Will Trump be better? 

In the end, it is perfectly alright to express doubts about President-elect Trump ability to articulate a mature U.S. foreign policy. Still, the idea that come January 20 2017 the rowdy, clueless children are taking over, while the thoughtful grown ups have been driven out of the room is nonsense.

Quite frankly, if the poor Obama foreign policy record is the best the mature and experienced adults are capable of, then we may as well give the untested Trump and his team a chance.

Who knows, they may surprise us.




Can U.S. Fight Insurgencies?

WASHINGTON – Under pressure, the Obama administration released the estimated number of civilians killed (unintentionally) in the course of U.S. drone strikes that have taken place in various theaters. Along with the figures came new guidance aimed at further reducing “collateral damage”, i.e. the killing of civilians in the course of U.S. air attacks via drones. (These attacks are always aimed at military targets).

Indeed, sometimes, civilians get killed accidentally due to their proximity to military targets. (There have also been a few cases in which civilians have been mistakenly targeted, because it was wrongly assumed, based on the information available at the time, that they were in fact enemy fighters).

Civilians killed by drone attacks 

US Intelligence sources stated that 116 civilians were killed in the course of drone strikes aimed at hitting legitimate military targets in different theaters. This usually happens because enemy positions are located in the midst of populates areas.

President Obama stated that America, from now on, will do its very best to further reduce these numbers. Of course, several critics immediately argued that the real number of civilians killed is a lot higher. Besides, this total just announced excludes the death toll from operations in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

This U.S. announcement could be just public relations; or it could be an oblique way to tell the world that from now on the U.S., while fighting elusive enemies on different fronts, will be more restrained. It will bomb less, with drones or conventional aircraft. Indeed, if this new guidance will take effect as stated, hard to bomb more enemy positions most often located in populated urban areas, when your goal is to further reduce the chance of killing civilians.

Restrictive Rules of Engagement 

Still, whatever the real numbers of civilians accidentally killed, the truth is that America’s current “Rules of Engagement” are already extremely restrictive on when and where U.S. bombs can be legitimately used.

Drones strikes are usually planned on the basis of carefully sifted intelligence. “Dynamic” strikes that occur in the context of ongoing military operations however are also subject to complex procedures. Tactical Operations Centers need to authorize them, often only after having received the input of military lawyers who are standing by 24/7 and who are called upon to assess the legality of strikes, on the basis of the available intelligence regarding the situation on the ground.

Is the way to fight a war?

This way of fighting a war looks crazy. But these are the standard rules. Given all these restrictions on what targets can be bombed aimed at avoiding or at least reducing possible civilian casualties, quite often requested strikes are simply not authorized by the U.S. military authorities.

Well, then why do we have non combatants killed by U.S. bombs? Very simple. Al Qaeda, the Taliban and now ISIL do not follow the established laws of warfare. They routinely place their own assets (troops, ammunition, logistics) in the middle of densely populated areas. They deliberately use civilians as human shields. And the purpose of all this is obvious: to deter American attacks.

Civilian deaths become propaganda tools

And when some ISIL positions are indeed attacked and civilians are killed, then there is a huge publicity gain for the insurgents. “The blood thirsty Americans bomb indiscriminately, deliberately targeting women and children”.

Needless to say, ISIL and others have a vested interest in inflating the numbers of civilians killed through drone or other U.S. air strikes. This is their own way of fighting the propaganda war, using the argument of American barbarity in order to recruit more people willing to fight and die for the cause.

Impossible to avoid civilian casualties 

The fact is that, even with heroic efforts, it is impossible to avoid civilian casualties while fighting irregular forces that hide within populated areas. It is just impossible. Even with highly sophisticated satellites and other sensors that gather detailed images and provide real time data to those who operate drones, or to pilots of manned aircraft, it is just impossible for the U.S. military to neatly separate combatants who usually wear no uniforms from innocent civilians in populated areas.

No way to win

So, here is the bottom line. If Obama is serious about cutting the number of casualties going forward, then this means that America cannot realistically fight aggressively and win against insurgents who routinely hide in urban areas. Even today, without new restrictions in place on the use of air power, the effort to minimize collateral damage means relatively few air strikes, because many targets are deemed to be unlawful by the military lawyers, and therefore excluded.

More targets will be declared off-limits

If America wants to further diminish the likelihood of future civilian casualties while fighting insurgents, this means that an even larger number of possible military targets will be declared off-limits by the military lawyers, due to their close proximity to civilian areas.

And here is the absurdity. This is no way to fight any war. As troubling as this is to our civilized conscience, it is just impossible to fight an insurgency that operates in cities and towns without causing some unwanted suffering.

If America wants to win against ISIL and other insurgents, it has to accept this fact: if you want to destroy enemy forces that hide in populated areas, you have to accept that civilians will also be killed.

Long, inconclusive conflicts 

Otherwise, if avoiding civilian casualties is more important than destroying at least some enemy targets, let’s prepare for an endless and inconclusive conflict with adversaries who do not play by the accepted rules of war.

With all the restrictions outlined above, and possibly more to come, the U.S. cannot fight properly; because Washington feels the pressure of a world public opinion that requires America to behave according to an impossible standard.




NATO Is Indeed Obsolete

WASHINGTON – The Atlantic Alliance, or NATO, is an old security arrangement (founded in 1949) that no longer has a clear purpose. In his habitual blunt style Donald Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in the upcoming presidential elections, recently said that NATO “is obsolete”. In fact, while Trump is certainly not a leading foreign and defense policy expert, he is mostly right.

No mission

Indeed, what is NATO’s mission today? And, related to that, what means does NATO have at its disposal to execute this mission? On the first question, now that the Soviet Union is gone, the mission of a military alliance created to face it is murky. On the second question, NATO has very few military means, as defense budgets in most members states have been shrinking, year after year. (In the US, despite cuts, the Pentagon’s budget is equal to 3.6% of GDP. Germany’s defense spending is 1.2% of GDP. In Belgium it is 0.9%, in Spain 0.9%, in Italy 1.0%)

The old rationale

The initial rationale for the creation of Atlantic Alliance, the very first peace time integrated military structure, was the Soviet threat against Western Europe at the beginning of the Cold War. Europe’s proximity to the expanded Soviet Bloc, (it included all of Eastern Europe and East Germany), combined with Europe’s economic and military weakness, (due to the lingering effects of the destruction caused by WWII), prompted America to commit itself to the defense of Europe. Hence the creation of NATO in 1949, with tens of thousands of US troops permanently stationed in West Germany and elsewhere in Europe, with tanks, guns, aircraft, and nuclear weapons.

No more Soviet Union 

But then the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and the Cold War ended because the Soviet Union imploded shortly thereafter. The Warsaw Pact disappeared. The New Russian Federation lost control over all of Eastern Europe. Germany was reunified. Moscow also lost large pieces of the old Soviet Union, including Ukraine, Belarus and the three Baltic States.

NATO is still here 

However, NATO was not disbanded in response to the withering away of the old existential threat to Europe’s security. Perhaps it was prudent to keep the old institution in place, just in case. And may be it was a good idea to allow the former members of the Soviet Bloc to join NATO, even though the new Russian leaders saw this as an eastward expansion of NATO, and therefore a potential threat to them.

Still, be that as it may, an Alliance’s strength is based not on how many members it has, (28 countries), but on its shared purpose and on its ability to deploy the military tools to secure them. And here NATO shows its inherent weakness. No clear purpose, and drastically reduced military forces.

A new threat from Russia? 

If we fast forward to today, many will argue that NATO is still quite relevant because Putin’s Russia has demonstrated to have aggressive tendencies. in 2008 it went to war with Georgia. More recently it grabbed Crimea, a piece of Ukraine. Many say that, if unchecked by NATO, Russia would keep moving westward into Poland, the Baltic States, and may be beyond.

I believe that Russia is mostly interested in neighboring regions that historically were part of Russia. The idea that Ukraine is just the appetizer for a famished Russia, while Portugal or at the very least Germany will be the pudding seems quite preposterous.

Inadequate military means

But even if we assume that this unlikely theory of Russian resurgent expansionism were in fact correct, then where is NATO’s demonstrable military deterrent to counter it?

Indeed, if NATO is still standing and operational because Russia is a threat to its members, then we should also see robust defense spending aimed at creating a war fighting force that can credibly deter aggression by showing Russia that any threat to NATO members’ security would be met by a formidable force.

Unfulfilled commitments

Well, it is not so. Because of economic weaknesses and competing social spending priorities, most European countries have allowed defense spending to go into free fall. In theory, all NATO members are unequivocally committed to spend at least 2% of GDP on defense. In practice, only 5 countries, out of 28 NATO members, have honored this pledge. Most of the others spend around 1% of GDP on their military, or less. This is half of what they promised. If you take the U.S. out, The European members of NATO have only limited air power. Practically no sizable expeditionary forces. No meaningful airlift capabilities.

During the Libya mission, confronted with a third-rate enemy, the French and British air forces run out of smart bombs only a few weeks into the conflict. Even that limited operation could not have been executed without US support in key areas such as air defense jamming and suppression, and overall logistics.

Not serious 

Quite frankly, this reluctance to field credible military forces makes NATO into a joke. You cannot say that we have to keep NATO together and strong in order to face an aggressive Russia and then have a virtually disarmed military alliance on account of the fact that nobody wants to spend diminished revenue on defense in economically weak countries.

Limited support to US-led operations 

As far as what used to be called “out of area” (that is possible threats outside of Europe) NATO does not have clear objectives and a credible strategy to achieve them. Yes, NATO countries participated in the difficult Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. NATO countries intervened in Libya. All true. But in all these efforts (Libya is a partial exception) the US was leading, and selected NATO countries followed.

At present, while the US (with little enthusiasm) is leading a military effort against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, some NATO countries are contributing some aircraft to the air war. But there is no clear NATO policy. And certainly no commitment by all NATO members to participate.

No clear purpose 

So, here is the thing. With the end of the Cold War, NATO lost its original purpose. What we have now is murky strategic objectives and lack of military means to accomplish even slightly ambitious missions.

The NATO Alliance is now mostly a talking shop with too many members who contribute almost nothing of value. While something may change after the US elections, it is unlikely that anybody will ask the hard questions about purpose, strategy and means.

No debate on difficult issues 

Nobody wants to have an open debate within NATO that would inevitably expose deep political divisions and embarrassing military vulnerabilities. For this reason, I suspect that the old institutional framework will be left as is, even though most analysts recognize that it is obsolete and virtually meaningless when it comes to core military capabilities.

In the future, if we are lucky, the US may be able to create ad hoc  “coalitions of the willing” and work selectively with the 4 or 5 NATO countries that still have modern armed forces.




The Real Benghazi Story Is The False Explanation Of the Tragedy, Motivated By Politics

WASHINGTON – The much-anticipated appearance by Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and now leading Democratic Party presidential contender, before the House Committee on the Benghazi terror attack, has not added anything new.

Nothing new 

I have seen nothing that makes me change my mind on what happened in Benghazi in 2012, on that unhappy anniversary of September 11, when the US Consulate was attacked by radicals, and 4 Americans, including Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador, were killed.

Here is the story 

Here is my (perhaps) over simplified summary. The US Government, in this particular case the State Department led by then Secretary Clinton, did not appreciate that post-Gaddafi Libya was a very dangerous place. Indeed, requests for additional security made by the US Embassy, and personally by Ambassador Stevens, were not seriously considered. As a result the Libya posts had inadequate protection.

Sadly, when the Benghazi facility came under attack on September 11, 2012, insufficient American defenses were overwhelmed. People got killed.

Well, this is sad. Of course, in hindsight it is always easy to point fingers and conclude that then Secretary Clinton was and is responsible for these deaths. But this would be somewhat unfair. Hundreds, possibly thousands of possible threats to US diplomatic posts come in every day. Hard to respond to all of them. Hard to prioritize in the most appropriate manner.

Bad judgment 

In the case of Benghazi, it is obvious that everybody, including then Secretary of State Clinton, dropped the ball. They did not understand the severity of the situation, and they did not beef up security.

Well, what can we say. This was a huge mistake. But we are all human, and therefore fallible.

Here is the real story 

However, this is not the real story.

The real story is about how the Obama administration –and this includes then Secretary Clinton– reacted to this tragedy. Indeed, after the news of the Benghazi attack came out, the Obama White House, fearful of the possible negative political repercussion on Obama  –keep in mind that this happened just week before the November 2012 presidential elections– deliberately introduced a bogus explanation about what caused the attack.

Avoid political repercussions 

It is clear that they desperately wanted to avoid any accusation that the Obama administration had under estimated the possibility of more terror attacks against Americans.

And why this concern?

Well, because President Obama had claimed that his administration had successfully decimated al Qaeda. The official narrative throughout the 2012 political campaign had been that, after the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011 by US special forces, the terrorism threat was essentially gone –for good.

Therefore, one had to find an “explanation” for the Benghazi tragedy –clearly an act of terrorism– that would say that the attack was in fact about something else.

Nothing to do with terrorism.

Hence the introduction of the “video did it” bogus story. In order to muddy the waters, the Obama people came out with the clever explanation whereby the Benghazi attack was a spontaneous popular reaction to a video released in America that attacked Islam, and was therefore considered blasphemous by many believers in the Arab world, including Libya.

Ambassador Rice sent out to tell the bogus “video” story 

This being “the truth” that they wanted American voters to believe  –again, remember that all this occurred just weeks before the presidential elections– the Obama White House sent then UN Ambassador Susan Rice to appear on many TV programs, so that she could deliver this false narrative whereby “the anti-Muslim video caused the Benghazi attack”.

This was not said casually. This was carefully plotted. They all knew that they were telling a lie, with the obvious goal of protecting a President on the eve of a crucial vote. Once again, as the record of her public and private pronouncements indicates, Secretary of State Clinton, was a willful participant. She repeated the bogus story about “the video”, while she knew the truth, as her own e-mails –now public– revealed.

Deliberate manipulation 

In my judgment, this is the real problem. Yes, we can all agree that Secretary Clinton and her staff showed poor judgement in handling the security of US posts in Libya. As a result, the US Consulate in Benghazi was not properly protected. This is bad. But it was an error. May be an egregious, unforgivable error. But it is still an error.

What followed instead was deliberate manipulation motivated by politics. This may have been clever, but it was and is morally reprehensible.

Willful distortion 

And this is the real problem. We cannot accuse Hillary Clinton of having deliberately overlooked the security situation of the US diplomatic posts in Libya. But she happily joined the conspiracy aimed at distorting what actually happened in the night of September 11, 2012 in order to help her boss, President Obama.

Again, all this is morally reprehensible. If we give Hillary Clinton a pass on this, by saying that “It is a well-known fact that all politicians lie or at least engage in willful distortions”, we are deliberately lowering our moral standards.

A democracy run by duplicitous liars is not going to be a healthy place. If we choose them as our leaders, whatever damage they will cause in the long run, will be our fault.




Endless Migration To Europe From Africa And The Middle East

WASHINGTON – The recent headlines and TV images about throngs of desperate Syrian families trying to board trains in Hungary that will hopefully take them to Germany would allow many if not most observers to believe that Europe is facing a dramatic but limited problem.

Just Syrian refugees 

Right now, it seems that this is a sudden refugee crisis stemming from the horrible Syrian civil war. It would appear that most of the people trying to get to Europe are the victims of this prolonged conflict.

Besides, the European Union authorities and the member states governments, whatever their profound disagreements on a common refugee policy, talk in terms of precise numbers: 160,000 to be settled here, 20,000 there, and so on.

Because of this, the public may get the impression that, as difficult as all this is, this is a limited, manageable problem. There is a way for individual member states to be humane by accepting X number of Syrian refugees on their soil. After all this is done, the problem will be over.

A big migration 

Well, not so. Not even remotely so.

It is of course true that –right now– the attention grabbing headline is Syria. But, unfortunately, the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis it created is just the latest chapter of a decades-long history of desperate people who try to get out of poverty and misery in their own countries, with the hope that life in Europe will be better.

Immigrants from Africa

For example, the African migrants from Ghana, Nigeria or Senegal who cross the Sahara Desert, and then board old and unsafe vessels that will sail to Italy, have absolutely nothing to do with the Syrian conflict. And yet they have been coming, and coming, for decades. The number of daily arrivals is not a tidal wave. But the point is that these people –most of them driven by economic necessity– keep coming —every day.

Needless to say, other conflicts, such as the Libyan civil war, have given new momentum to this exodus. However, the Nigerians or Senegalese who keep coming have nothing to do with chaos in Libya.

Poverty and wars drive this migration 

So, here is the thing. In several African countries and in the Middle East there is a really bad combination of poverty, lack of economic opportunity, disease, political chaos, and bloody conflicts.

These factors, in different ways, create the incentives to migrate. And Europe is the target destination because of geographic proximity, historic ties, and because of a somewhat relaxed (or confused, if you prefer) policy regarding immigrants.

While policies vary from country to country, the general perception among the would-be immigrants is that, once you get there, you get to stay. Period.

What does all this mean? 

Well, if this is so, then what do we make of this seemingly unstoppable phenomenon? Very simple. On top of the millions who are already there, in the next few years there will be millions and millions new immigrants –legitimate refugees plus all the others– who will get to Europe simply because they believe that in Europe they will have a better life.

And what is the impact of this massive migration? The migrants who already got to Europe and settled there have transformed the countries where they have settled. Unfortunately, in most cases, not in a good way.

Impact 

Simply stated, most host countries do not have the money and/or the resolve to foster a rapid integration process. Therefore, most immigrants end up living at the margin of society, with limited access to education, health care and work. From their perspective, this rather dismal existence as permanent underclass may be better than what they left behind in their home countries. But this is hardly optimal.

No improvement 

I am very pessimistic about the chances to radically improve this picture. There is poverty and war in Africa and the Middle East, and (supposedly) better economic conditions in Europe. Therefore, the incentive to get to Europe is just too strong.

And, remember, this is not a limited crisis. The Syrian civil war at some point will end. But this is an endless migration that could stop only if and when conditions in the countries of origin of all these immigrants really improve, in a dramatic way.

And I would not bet on this happening any time soon.

 




More And More Africans Flowing Into Europe

WASHINGTON – High minded European media chastise both EU governments and segments of public opinion for their myopic and ungenerous attitude regarding immigration. 

There has to be room 

The EU is a group of 28 countries with a total population now exceeding 500 million. Surely there must be some extra room for a few thousand refugees from the Middle East, North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. EU member states inability to forge a workable policy consensus that would resolve a manageable problem is a bad indication.

After all, the same editorials intone, look at Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. They have welcomed literally millions of Syrian refugees. If under resourced countries can do that, why is that bigger and more prosperous EU countries cannot do better with much, much smaller numbers of asylum seekers?

Not a self-contained issue 

Yes, in principle these look like valid arguments. But they are not. They are not because they implicitly assume that this wave of migration from poor and conflict ridden countries to more prosperous Europe is a temporary phenomenon bound to end quite soon. In other words, this is presented by the media as a relatively manageable, self-contained issue; but it is not.

Indeed, while the number of “African Boat People” landing almost daily in Italy are not overwhelming, it is a constant flow: 500, 900, 1200 arrivals, almost every day. And this migration of the poor towards somewhat better off countries is essentially unstoppable.

Africa is poor 

Much is said about Africa finally coming of age, with promising growth and more opportunity. However, the Continent remains extremely poor. Most Africans still lack the very basics. They have no electricity, no clean water, bad housing, at best inadequate health care facilities. And let’s not talk about education opportunities leading to good jobs and fulfilling careers. All this may come, eventually. But not now.

Add to this the perpetual political chaos in Libya and other North African countries, with consequent economic misery for millions. And to spice this up, consider the never-ending Syrian civil war, with Assad, ISIL, and assorted Syrian fighters fueling a horrible conflict that essentially destroyed the country, this way creating an immense refugee problem.

All these are the drivers of migration to Europe. It would take heroic optimism to believe that these are just temporary phenomena, coming soon to an end. Until the root causes of extreme poverty and conflict will be taken care of, this flow will go on, and on, for at least another decade, may be much longer.

Not just a few thousand people

So, let’s clarify that the issue at hand is not just finding appropriate accommodation for a few thousand people landing in Sicily, or for the poor souls who are now camped in Calais, France, with the hope to be allowed to get to Great Britain. This is a vast population movement driven by poverty and wars, enabled by a variety of criminal gangs that take care of the travel arrangements.

Unless we can assume that soon enough Africa and the Middle East will offer education, economic opportunity, and security to all or most of their inhabitants, you can safely conclude that this slow but steady migration will continue.

Demographic changes 

And, wait, there is more. This net inflow of poor, illiterate and mostly Muslim migrants has to be placed in the context of semi-impoverished Southern European countries that are the “port of entry” for the refugees. Greece, Italy and Spain are countries in economic decline. They have overstretched social welfare programs, under performing economies, and declining populations.

The net addition of even a few thousand Africans, month after month, simply makes a bad situation worse. These mostly unskilled and illiterate Africans cannot possibly add to the national economy in any meaningful way. In fact, they become recipients of public assistance, this way adding to already unsustainable costs.

More and more Africans in Southern Europe 

Last but not least, in the context of stagnant or declining indigenous EU countries populations, these African and Middle Eastern immigrants will soon begin to alter the demographic picture. The Italians have one of the lowest fertility rates in Europe. The immigrants keep arriving. Those who settle in Italy on balance tend to have higher fertility rates. This means a rapidly growing immigrant population, both in absolute and relative terms.

If these new immigrants were educated, capable and willing to contribute to the societies that welcome them, this would be great. But unfortunately this is not the case.

Given all this, the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment, even if ineffective because it cannot stop the flow, is not that difficult to understand.




How Big A Threat From Jihadist Organizations?

WASHINGTON – The tricky part of any asymmetric warfare threat –now I am referring to the anti-Western Jihadist organizations spread around the Middle East and beyond– is that it is really difficult to assess its strength.

They are coming, by the thousands

For months Fox News, (a top rated US cable TV channel), has been telling  America that there are tens of thousands of would-be jihadists, (most of them “self-radicalized” young Muslims), who had gone to fight in Syria and Iraq. And now, after intense training received over there, they are coming back to unleash a wave of terror in America and in Europe.

A real threat, but not so huge

Look, no doubt there is some truth in this assessment. But only some. For sure, young people went to Syria to fight. For sure, some came back with bad intentions. And the recent killings in Paris, (Charlie Hebdo, and the Jewish super market), are evidence of what armed people with bad intentions can do. For all these reasons, counter terrorism agencies have to be extra vigilant. There is a real threat out there.

We are all targets

But the point is that we were told by dozens of security experts paraded on TV to expect waves of attacks perpetrated by thousands of determined warriors-terrorists.

We were told that any soft target in America (shopping malls, schools, train stations) has become a target. And we were also told that somehow this horrible development –the metastasis of the terror cancer– is Obama’s fault because our President has (stupidly?) under estimated the terror threat.

No wave of attacks

Well, while it is unwise to make blanket statements about a developing phenomenon, so far we have seen no waves of attacks. Yes, we have seen some. And this is bad enough. But the West is not about to be destabilized by thousands of suicide terrorists. Yes, there have been some instances of violent attacks. And no doubt other plots have been uncovered before the jihadists could make a move.

But overall, this is not a New Apocalypse. This jihadist phenomenon, with large cells in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and also Nigeria, is a nasty brew animated by a millenarian ideology that surprisingly finds believers willing to fight for the violent recreation of a New Caliphate, or anything close to it. As absurd as all this sounds, it is nonetheless true.

No Clash of Civilizations

But this is not the prophesied “Clash of Civilizations”. The Islamic State, IS, in Syria and Iraq, as resilient as it is, is not going to transform all Muslim societies, from Morocco to Indonesia. IS will not turn their citizens into vast armies of pious fighters willing to die in order to destroy all the heretics and unbelievers.

Yes, we can count on more attacks, whether plotted in Yemen, or concocted by local “lone wolves”, in Paris, London or Minneapolis. This is most unpleasant. It means we are at risk. But let’s keep this in perspective. There are other risks, many of them bigger, if we measure them by the loss of life, that get almost no attention.

Only certain types of deaths matter

For instance, I just saw on TV that several hundreds Americans get killed by trains every year, because many pedestrians carelessly walk on and across railroad tracks, notwithstanding clear signs indicating that this is both very dangerous and strictly prohibited. And yet, this shocking statistic of hundreds (almost a thousand) of totally preventable deaths occurring every year gets barely a mention.

By the same token, sadly in the US there are frequent instances of deranged individuals shooting people in shopping malls, schools, or work places. But, somehow, since these are “regular killings”, we do not care that much.

However, if someone else does exactly the same thing –shooting innocent people without any rational motive– shouting “Allahu Akbar”, (“God is the Greatest”), then we are told by terror experts that the entire country is in mortal danger.

Not an existential threat

As a society, we should re-consider how we assess threats and how we talk about them. Don’t get me wrong. The jihadists are a real problem. Still, they are not an existential threat.

But somehow the media created the impression that they are a formidable force composed of determined fanatics about to destroy us. And this is simply not true.




Media Hype About ISIL Not Helpful

WASHINGTON – The international media are not helping our understanding of the actual extent of the Islamic State threat. They are now serving the function of echo chamber, amplifying ISIL’s scary propaganda messages, (beheadings, a Jordanian pilot burnt alive), spread via the internet. And this is very unhelpful, as it contributes to create the rather silly notion of this unstoppable, mighty Army of truculent “True Believers” on the march to world conquest.

Intelligence failure

It is indeed sad that Western intelligence obviously under estimated ISIL and its potential, first in Syria and then in Iraq. This was a major blunder. But now Western media want to imply that barbarians who cut the throats of a few prisoners, and then expertly package the whole thing for internet distribution, almost by definition must be capable of “anything”.

Not the Wehrmacht

This is patently absurd. ISIL is fairly strong and resilient. Its military forces are indeed capable of holding on to large pieces of weak and divided countries, such as Syria and Iraq. They are now making inroads into Libya, taking advantage of the fact that this is yet another sorry-looking and essentially failed state. ISIL’s ability to exploit the opportunities created by weak countries torn by conflicts is indeed a problem.

But this is not the German Wehrmacht smashing Poland, and then turning West to defeat a large French army in a matter of weeks. This is not the Japanese Imperial Army conquering Manchuria.

A relatively small military force

The Islamic State has financial resources and manpower. We know that. But it does not have an invincible force at its command. Most estimates talk about 30,000 to 40,000 troops. Well, Turkey, a country that could become engaged in the fight because of its proximity to Syria, has an army with 700,000 soldiers, (active and reserve forces combined). The fact that ISIL, this most improbable creature, is still operational tells us a lot about Western and Arab timidity and indecisiveness. It is not a function of the Islamic State’s  inherent strength.

Yes, we could and should do a lot more to “degrade” and eventually “defeat” ISIL. Doing just a little bit here and there with a few bombing raids is harmful to our credibility.

Not an existential threat

Nevertheless, let’s keep things in perspective. ISIL is indeed fueled by a dangerous, toxic millenarian ideology. But it is not an irresistible military tsunami.

I would love to see more cohesion and more determination in Western military responses, whatever the best tools may be, so that this menace will end soon. But this is not an existential threat.

Stop rebroadcasting propaganda

World media should stop rebroadcasting ISIL propaganda videos whose objective is to scare the general public, while creating interest among would-be jihadists.

They should instead help the public gain a realistic perspective on a threat that is serious, but not as deadly as ISIL’s leaders would like us to believe.




Italy Overwhelmed By Immigrants From North Africa

WASHINGTON – Regarding the constant flow of illegal immigrants from North Africa into Italy and to a lesser degree Spain, the main media focus is on the all too frequent tragedies at sea. Old and overcrowded vessels sometimes do not make it. Sadly, lots of people drown.

Tragedies at sea

Italian media have almost daily reports about the heroic deeds of the Italian Coast Guard and/or the Italian Navy. While patrolling the seas, they spot shipwrecked people and often save lives. The survivors are brought to shore.

No policy

That said, the larger issue here is that, tragedies notwithstanding, there is no policy to stem or reverse the flow of these desperate would-be immigrants. More of them, one way or the other, manage to get to Italy. A little more than 100,000 landed just this year, including 14,600 minors and 8,600 unaccompanied children.

A constant inflow

Now, this is not a tidal wave. But it is a constant stream of poor, in most cases illiterate, immigrants who create additional burdens for already over extended social and health care services.

Of course, If we looked at the impact of this immigration on the European Union as a whole, it would not be so great. The EU is made out of 28 countries, with more than 500 million inhabitants. Surely a relatively large Continent could make room for a few hundreds of thousands arriving from North Africa every year.

But the fact is that, in practice, there is no real Europe-wide policy aimed at absorbing illegal immigrants from North and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Immigrants become the problem of the host country

Whatever the existing EU programs, the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants getting in, year after year, de facto become the problem of the countries welcoming them. The Africans landing in Sicily are not going to eventually settle in Denmark or Ireland. Most of them will stay right there, in Italy.

In the case of Italy, there is the issue of the significant cost of patrolling the coastal waters, rescuing people at sea, placing them in some sort of livable accommodations, feeding them and caring for them. This is truly burdensome for a country with a disastrous national debt, (around 130% of GDP), and a semi-comatose, zero-growth economy.

Not a temporary phenomenon 

That said, beyond the immediate costs, one should look at the long-term impact of all these immigrants from Maghreb and other African countries.

For starters, let’s understand that this is not a temporary phenomenon. Tens of thousands of semi-desperate people will continue to arrive, every month, driven mostly by extreme poverty but also by endemic conflcits.

Indeed, unless the economic circumstances in their countries of origin improve dramatically –and this is practically impossible– the drive to emigrate and look for a better life in Europe will continue.

Case in point, now there is a civil war in post-Gaddafi Libya. This chaos creates an additional incentive for more people to leave. If Libya were at peace, if there would be investments, economic growth and demand for labor, then the poor Libyans would probably stay at home. But this is not the case; and so they emigrate, trying to sail into Italy on overcrowded vessels.

Long term impact

This slow but constant migration is already changing Italy’s demography. Assuming no reversal, in a few years the changes will be more and more visible. And, unfortunately, these are not good changes.

These immigrants are by definition needy. They do not bring much intellectual capital in the shape of valuable skills. These are not doctors, engineers or architects. These are mostly illiterate people who do not speak Italian. And, even if they could get jobs, please consider that Italy has a 12% unemployment rate. Youth unemployment reaches 60% in the South. Where are the jobs for these immigrants, even assuming that they were qualified?

On top of that, most of them are Muslim, and this adds another layer of complexity. Very hard to assimilate people of different races, with minimal or non existent education, and a different religion.

A new demographic make-up

Everything else being equal, considering an extremely low –below replacement level– fertility level among the native Italians, 20 years from now there will be areas of Italy completely dominated by the recent immigrants who tend to have many more children.

Again, nothing wrong with that in principle. The problem is that it would take a real optimist to assume that these hundreds of thousands –and in the end millions– of poor immigrants will quickly adjust, get a good education, and become productive workers and tax payers who will end up enriching Italy.

Poor Italy will become poorer

Most of them are likely to live at the margin of the society hosting them, requiring help, health care and other costly social services.

Sadly, an already semi-impoverished Italy will do even worse because of all these additional costs, not to mention the predictable political reactions to all this immigration in the shape of more, and possibly violent, xenophobic, anti-foreigners  movements.

 




The World Is In Crisis, But Obama Is Focused On The November Mid-Term Elections

WASHINGTON – If Obama were an American statesman, then he  would get seriously engaged in the foreign crises, from Gaza To the South China Sea, that are now threatening world order. But, in fact, Obama is mostly a politician. Therefore, he focuses only on the unfolding campaign for the mid-term elections and on the issues that will determine how people will vote in November. And international problems –he noted– are very low on the list. Therefore, why worry about them? 

Iraq out of control

As we know, there are plenty of international crises out of control.  Iraq, until recently the primary focus of US foreign and security policies, is almost falling apart, with a chunk of its territory now controlled by Muslim fanatics who may use this vast territory as a launching pad for new international terror operations. Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north of the country are moving towards de facto secession.

Post-Gaddafi Libya is now essentially a failed state. The Syrian civil war continues, with millions of refugees now in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Vienna negotiations notwithstanding, Iran is well on its way to get a nuclear weapons capability.

Russia…and China

There is a serious probability that the Moscow-funded rebellion in Eastern Ukraine may escalate into a full-blown conflict between a weak and poor Ukraine and a much more powerful Russia.

China is flexing its muscles by attempting to establish legal claims on the territorial waters of neighboring states.

Terror groups are destabilizing parts of Nigeria and now Kenya.

Plenty to do for an American President who would want to lead the world.

Obama is focused on the November mid-term elections

But do not count on American leadership. Obama is not a leader. He is a politician mostly worried about the upcoming mid-term elections to be held in November. He has looked at how all these foreign crises poll. And he has noted, with great relief, that foreign crises do not move many votes.

Yes, Americans do say in various polls that Obama is not doing well in managing US foreign policy. But in the same polls they also indicate that they do not want America to get involved in any new conflict, no matter what may be at stake. Most fundamentally, foreign policy is not a key concern; and therefore it is clear that it will not influence how most people will vote in November.

The economy will decide the elections

The issues that people care about, as always, have to do with the economy. We are talking about jobs, financial security, the burden of student loans, health care costs. To the extent that America is doing a little better on the economic front, if your primary concern is the outcome of the November mid-term elections, then things do not look so bad.

Raise money for TV ads

And it is quite obvious that Obama is focused on the elections, not on US world leadership. Therefore, as a true politician, the President is doing his best to improve the chances of the Democratic Party in November by hopping from fund-raiser to fund-raiser across America, with the goal of getting more and more cash for his party.

He knows very well that the elections in most cases will be won or lost by the candidates who will spend more on TV spots. And TV political commercials cost a lot of money. The more money Obama raises, the better the chances for the Democrats to forcefully counter the attacks of Republican challengers.

Smart politician

In other words, Obama is behaving like a smart politician. Most Americans do not even know where Ukraine is. They will not decide how to vote in November on the basis of Obama’s decisive or weak leadership in that crisis.

Yes, all those who wonder about the consequences of America’s passivity on future world stability are genuinely worried. But they are not even a significant minority of likely voters.

Let’s be frank. The average American does not care about who controls Mosul in Iraq, or Donetsk in Ukraine. And, in fairness, it is very difficult to articulate compelling reasons for US engagement in far away crises that, for the time being, do not touch the lives of average Americans.

Most likely voters care about having a job, affordable housing and health care. As I said, on the domestic front, things are getting a bit better in America. And this may give renewed hope to the Democrats, as they are getting ready to fight for the November elections. Hence Obama’s focus on fund-raising events in order to improve his party’s chances to win.

Obama is a good politician, in fact a shrewd politician; but he is not a statesman.