"Pretty Please" Geopolitics

Every politician is naturally inclined to think speeches can have a profound impact on the course of events.  The American political and media class has a profound tendency to think talking about a problem equates to doing something about it.  If such talk is followed by a government spending proposal, the matter is pretty much settled.

For President Barack Obama, this tendency is even more pronounced.  He’s frequently hailed by admirers as one of the greatest orators to hold the Oval Office, and is said to have emitted quite a few “historic” speeches during his short years on the national stage: his post-Jeremiah Wright “racial healing” speech, the speech he gave in Cairo before the beginning of the “Arab Spring,” the joint session of Congress in which he launched his non-existent “American Jobs Act,” and even the bizarre celebration of hard socialism he delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas last week, just to name a few examples.  If you watch Obama when he’s in full “voice of history” mode, you can see him pause frequently with his head raised, as if posing for the sculptors who will soon add him to Mount Rushmore.

Thus, the Great Orator found himself today commemorating the official end of the Iraq War, and issuing all sorts of completely meaningless rhetorical “warnings” to a sinister party who shall remain nameless, but whose name is also the title of the chart-topping single from 80s one-hit wonder A Flock Of Seagulls.  As reported by MSNBC:

President Barack Obama heralded the end of the divisive Iraq war Monday, and warned Iraq’s neighbors that the United States would remain a major player in the region even as it brings its troops home.

“Our strong presence in the Middle East endures,” Obama said. “And the United States will never waiver in the defense of our allies, our partners and our interests.”

Speaking after a morning of meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Obama said other nations must not interfere with Iraq’s sovereignty. While he stopped short of mentioning any countries by name, U.S. officials are closely watching how neighboring Iran may seek to influence Baghdad after U.S. troops withdraw.

Obama foreign policy, in all areas, is heavily predicated on refraining from actions that would upset Iran, although he serves up a bit of tough rhetoric every now and then.  Notice the very different treatment given to Libya and Syria, where Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar Assad were engaged in roughly comparable crackdowns against regime opponents, on somewhat different timetables. 

Assad is just about ready to cut loose with the large-scale atrocities, after months of steady dissident mulching.  The Syrian opposition is bracing itself for a “massacre” in the city of Homs, as reported by CNN:

Opposition figures said the Syrian government had warned people in Homs to stop anti-government protests, hand in weapons and surrender defecting military members by Monday night — or face attack by the government forces.

Syrian forces gave a 72-hour warning, said Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamdo of the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group of defected Syrian military personnel. Activists on the ground said the ultimatum was issued Friday for Homs, a center of the popular uprising.

Hamdo said Syrians are worried about a repeat of what happened in 1982 when Syria’s military — acting under orders from then-President Hafez al-Assad, father of current Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — launched an assault on Hama, killing thousands. “We fear that a similar massacre or worse could take place in Homs,” he said.

“People are very afraid,” said Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist in Beirut, Lebanon, with the organization Avaaz, who is in touch with people in Syria.

There are enough troops around Homs “to take over the city,” he said, and casualties have been increasing “in very big numbers” over the past couple of days. “People are afraid that the army might now invade the city.”

Syria is an Iranian client state, so Assad faces a very different future than Qaddafi.  Furthermore, Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki is firmly in Iran’s corner on the Syrian crisis, refusing to call for Assad to step down, and refusing to vote on booting Syria out of the Arab League.  President Obama dismissed this as “tactical differences on how to deal with Syria.”

Al-Maliki’s promises to keep foreign powers from “meddling” in Iraq ring hollow when Iran has been doing so all along, at no small cost in the lives of American troops.  Iran has every reason in the world to “meddle” even more, considering the sectarian divisions in Iraq – where al-Maliki and his ruling coalition are Shiite, like the Iranian government.  The rewards of bringing their huge neighbor into their orbit would be great for Tehran.  Iran and Iraq fought a long and bitter war in the 80s over territorial issues, as well as Saddam’s frequently expressed anger over Iranian “meddling.”  Iran probably still wants all the things it wanted then.

Obama also asked Iran to return the captured U.S. stealth drone it’s been parading on local television, a request even his own Secretary of State admitted was likely to fall on deaf ears, as related by the BBC:

Mr Obama said he would not comment on classified intelligence matters, but confirmed: “We have asked for it back. We’ll see how the Iranians respond.”

Iranian TV broadcast pictures of the intact RQ-170 Sentinel last week.

Tehran said the aircraft was brought down using electronic warfare; Washington insisted it malfunctioned.

Earlier on Monday, Iranian state TV reported that military experts were in the final stages of recovering data from the drone.

A member of the Iranian parliament’s national security committee, Parviz Sorouri, said the information they extracted would be used to “file a lawsuit against the United States over the invasion” by the aircraft.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted that she did not think it likely that the drone would be returned.

“We are very clearly making known our concerns. We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment, as we would in any situation. Given Iran’s behaviour to date, we do not expect them to reply,” she said.

She said that despite numerous “provocations” from Iran, the US would continue to pursue a “diplomatic approach”.

Words don’t change geo-political reality, and Obama has never given a convincing impression he understands those realities.  Asked how he reconciles taking a bow today for what he portrays as the successful conclusion of an operation he used to oppose, Obama made a fairly bold attempt to claim credit for just the good stuff.  From a Fox News report:

From the beginning of the Iraq war, and while a U.S. senator, Obama has opposed the U.S. military operation, going so far as to call it a “dumb war.” Asked Monday whether he still felt that way, Obama responded, “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.

“But what’s absolutely clear is, as a consequence of the enormous sacrifices that have been made by American soldiers and civilians — American troops and civilians, as well as the courage of the Iraqi people, that what we have now achieved is an Iraq that is self-governing, that is inclusive and that has enormous potential,” he said.

So which is it?  Was it a “dumb war” we never should have fought, or was it an “achievement” with “enormous potential?”  Does George W. Bush deserve any of the credit for that achievement?  Wouldn’t it help America come to terms with its feelings about that “divisive” war if Obama reached out to his predecessor, and encouraged the rabid anti-war and anti-Bush wings of the Democrat Party to appreciate that some of our “achievements” in Iraq were precisely Bush’s objectives all along?

Fat chance.  This is all about partisan politics and speeches, not global achievements and actions.  It’s really not that much different from Obama’s handling of the economy, which has consisted almost entirely of arranging photo ops at politically favored “success story” companies, at fantastic taxpayer expense.  The Iraq War is ending, and while Obama has virtually no idea why it was fought – or what our long-term adversary Iran is willing to do, in order to achieve its objectives – he knows that he needs to go wherever history is happening, and get some pictures of himself making it. 

Likewise, if he can make a couple of high-profile speeches warning Iran not to meddle in Iraq, and we manage to squeak past November 2012 without any high-profile meddling splashed across the front pages, the President can boast of how his incredible oratory skills and global presence have once again secured a victory for “smart power.”  If Iran ever does return our stealth drone, no matter how many of its electronic guts have been torn out and shipped to Beijing, he’ll take credit for “persuading” them to give it back.