08/16/2013 07:52 pm ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

Pinball Wizard: Obama's Murky Global Terror Alert, Canceled Russian Summit and Egyptian Mess

While President Barack Obama continues to make promising moves in the Asia-Pacific Pivot, things have rapidly gone south in other arenas.

His global terror alert, based on a reportedly spectacular intelligence intercept described as a conference call of "the Legion of Doom," shut down a bunch of embassies and alarmed travelers around the world but has led, at least so far as we know, only to action in Yemen shutting down Al Qaeda moves internal to that failing state.

His relentless quest to get ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden drove him to Russia and led to endless U.S. demands of Russian President Vladimir Putin to turn the leaker over. As Putin would never do that any time in the next million years, Obama canceled their September summit in Moscow.

And then there is the tragic disaster that is Egypt.

Obama is facing criticism that his claims of having vanquished al Qaeda are out of phase with his declarations of massive new threats posed by al Qaeda. From Yemen, of all places, where we long backed a dictator who reportedly was making serious progress against the pesky jihadists. He also faces criticism of a different sort, perhaps more damaging to his credibility if believed.

Even though there have been repeated U.S. drone strikes the past few weeks in Yemen -- where al Qaeda's ranks appear to have increased along with the bombings of recent years -- the threat in that neighbor of Saudi Arabia itself still seems murky.

While one Yemeni government official claimed that an expansive al Qaeda plot to take over cities and energy installations had been thwarted, attack Western embassies and ships, other Yemeni officials denied it had happened or that the group ever had the capability to mount such an operation. An operation entirely about the internal workings of Yemen, that is.

According to McClatchy reporting, "a high-ranking Yemeni security official" says there was never anything to the supposed plot and that it was all "a misguided attempt at shifting public opinion in the face of increasing and unpopular American drone strikes."

U.S. officials also denied some of the Yemeni claims, and there has been some backtracking.

And quite to the contrary, there was no more unrest than usual in Yemen, aside from reactions to the flurry of US drone strikes.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration suddenly re-opened all but one of the embassies shuttered in the global terror alert. No incidents have been reported at any of those embassies.

The one embassy which is not re-opening is the one in Yemen, which is where all the reported action -- described by Yemeni authorities as countering Al Qaeda moves in Yemen -- has been.

And it's not clear what, if anything at all, the "Legion of Doom" has to do with all this. That's what a sensational report in the Daily Beast called the cabal of high-ranking al Qaeda leaders -- including co-founder and longtime bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri -- who were supposedly detected on a global conference call plotting unspecific nefarious deeds.

The story sounded, er, unlikely to begin with, given the NSA's reputation for fearsome global reach and al Qaeda's well-reported habit of taking great care with electronic communications. Then the story changed from the original conference call to something vaguer, a joint encounter in a virtual space.

In any event, given the writer's history of uncritically reporting what have turned out to be a string of spurious things around the Iraq War and other misadventures, there's plenty of room for skepticism.

As coincidence would have it, Obama's global terror alerts came right after the latest Snowden revelations, which continue to roil global and domestic politics, and a fascinating report placing the Benghazi disaster in a fascinating new light.

Lost in the shuffle of media around the "Legion of Doom" business is a CNN report that there were some 35 previously unreported CIA agents involved in the fighting on the ground during the Benghazi disaster of 9/11/12. Apparently seven more people were wounded, some very seriously, than previously revealed.

I'm not seeing denials of this. CNN and others also report that the surviving CIA agents are being pressured to keep quiet, and especially to avoid talking to any journalists or anyone from Congress, with repeated polygraph tests to enforce the prohibitions.

This is like a re-edited movie with a lot more characters, not to mention a different plot. CIA involvement in Benghazi, where we already knew its personnel dwarfed those of the State Department, which actually had no proper consulate there -- the "diplomatic mission" was really more a CIA operational center -- has always been the big imponderable of the controversy. But very little was forthcoming.

What were they doing there? Hard to say with any precision. Rumors have circulated for a long time that there was an arms transfer underway to the Syrian rebels involving weapons, perhaps missiles, from Gaddafi's vast stores. But that could be wrong.

There have also been rumors that jihadists were angry about targeted kill missions against their cadre.

Of course, those things could all be wrong.

One thing that is clear is that, whatever was really going on at the time of the Benghazi disaster, it didn't take place as part of a protest against a California-produced hate-Islam "movie."

Given how, well, intriguing Benghazi turns out to be, it boggles the mind why the White House would send Susan Rice onto those five national chat shows last September to peddle the notion that it all happened because of a protest gone sour. That was demonstrably ridiculous at the time, as I wrote at the time. It simply served to infuriate Obama critics and keep a long-term focus on the issue given Rice's evident candidacy for secretary of state.

While the latest chapter on Benghazi has been avoided, for the moment, Obama had other things to answer for in the swirl of negative events.

Obama did his first full-on press conference since April on August 9. He was forced to try out a comprehensive response to widespread alarm over massive surveillance programs, said that ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden, whose revelations prompted Obama's own increased transparency on an issue he formerly championed as a US senator, "is no patriot."

It was not one of Obama's Kodak moments. He claimed that he himself had spurred the debate on surveillance programs, programs he of course had assiduously kept as secret as possible. Surely he wasn't referring to his notorious remarks to interviewer Charlie Rose seven weeks ago. When pressed by Rose on why surveillance programs lack transparency, Obama insisted: "It is transparent, that's why we set up the FISA court." Which of course is very secret and anything but transparent.

While he didn't have anything that memorable, at least on the NSA controversies, he did say that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is like a bored kid." As in, "he's got that kind of slouch, looking like a bored kid in the back of the classroom."

One of the dumb kids, naturally.

Since Putin, very predictably, didn't respond to attempts to strong arm him on Snowden, he's not very likely to wilt under smart kid rhetoric. (Especially when he undoubtedly considers himself the smartest.)

Obama naturally had to cancel his planned Moscow mini-summit next month with Putin.

It was inevitable, but it was also inevitable that Putin would not turn over Snowden.

Or abandon the Assad regime in Syria.

Or give in on missile defense in Central Europe.

Or follow Western dictates about Russian internal affairs.

Why not?

On Snowden, because Putin is a tough Cold War-era KGB colonel pleased to have a big propaganda and intelligence asset delivered to him on a silver platter. He's also not inclined to give in to threats from America.

On Syria, because it's a longtime Russian ally and Putin is deeply opposed to regime change based on Western "humanitarian interventionism."

On missile defense in Central Europe, because Putin never bought the spin that it is aimed at Iran rather than Russia and opposes having American bases close to his border, just as Russia opposed NATO expansion up to its borders in the days after the Soviet Union fell.

On criticism of Russian civil society and human rights, because, in the manner of arguably popular autocrats, Putin won't allow outside meddling. A hallmark of Russian policy, as it is a hallmark of Chinese policy, is that organizations and states should not judge how another country runs its internal affairs. Lest, of course, they be judged.

Alliances are built on achievable goals, not notions that lack any realism. There are some important issues which can be U.S./Russia alliance goals, such as easing the path from Afghanistan, countering jihadism (we ignored two warnings from Russian intelligence that could have prevented the Boston Marathon bombing), containing Iran.

The fact is that the Obama Administration has misjudged Russia from the beginning, in large part by misjudging who was really in charge there all along. My piece four years ago, "Obama Does Moscow, and Vice Versa," laid out the situation that we see today.

Obama, by most accounts, has hit it off with Medvedev. Why not? They're about the same age, they're both lawyers, they both smile a lot, neither was in the military or intelligence. Quite unlike Putin, who has disparaged Obama for his inexperience, with Obama disparaging Putin for having "a Cold War mentality."

Obama spent most of his time with Medvedev. Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, the American president had dinner Monday night with Medvedev and his wife, Svetlana Medvedeva.

But on Tuesday night, Obama was not available for Putin. Following a reception at the Kremlin, hosted by Medvedev, the Obamas repaired on their own to a glamorous nightclub with a view of the spectacular Moscow skyline. Night owl Putin was nowhere to be seen around Obama on either night. (The Obamas red-eyed it to Moscow on Sunday on Air Force One.)

Instead, Obama had a breakfast slot for Putin on Tuesday. Putin had Obama come to his sumptuous dacha in a forest outside Moscow. They discussed ballistic missile defense, and Russian dislike of America establishing bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, NATO expansion, and the question of containing Iran, Russia's decades-long friend of a sort (and centuries-long rival).

The two hour-plus meeting went long -- in part because much of it was taken up by a Putin monologue -- and Obama ended up late for his major address of the week at the New Economic School back in Moscow.

Having lectured Obama and made him late for the first time ever for one of his major addresses, Putin went over to visit a famous motorcycle club. Which is pointedly headed to a big motorcycle rally in Ukraine, a country which Putin is intent on keeping out of NATO.


While Obama and his team seem intent on promoting the relationship with Medvedev, it's worth remembering why Medvedev is the president of Russia. That's because Putin decided against changing the Russian constitution to enable himself to continue in the presidency. Which he was certainly popular enough to do.

While there doesn't seem to be a cult of Medvedev in Russia, there is certainly a cult of Putin. For all his seeming humorlessness, Putin is a very effective politician, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Ruthless enough to raze the city of Grozny after Boris Yeltsin made him prime minister with the charge of winning the war in Chechnya, urbane in his Italian suits and movie star-style collection of watches.

As president, Putin did a virtual town hall meeting every year, an hours-long telecast of people from around the country asking him questions on live television. I watched two of these performances, staged though they may have been, and Putin was every bit as good as any American politician would be.

While Medvedev has shown some signs of independence, he doesn't have Putin's history or personality cult going for him. And he's depended on Putin for his rise. After all, he was Putin's chief of staff, and then a deputy prime minister picked by Putin. And Medvedev (chairman of Gazprom, one of the world's biggest energy companies), was picked for the presidency by Putin, running for the office as the candidate of the ruling United Russia party, which is chaired by, you guessed it, Vladimir Putin.

Having advised a Russian political party during the chaotic Boris Yeltsin era into the beginning of the Putin era, the present state of play with Russia is not surprising.

A humiliated ex-superpower entered the new century yearning for nationalist revival. Precepts that appeal to us as Westerners were of particular interest only to cosmopolitan elites and idealists. The actual politics themselves were brutal. Often, quite literally. Key party members were assaulted and beaten physically; a few were even shot.

While Putin is no one serious's idea of a democrat, he is a credible and seemingly stable figure. A master of coercion, both direct and indirect, he defeated the Chechen forces who had humiliated the Red Army and brought order from chaos, all with enough of an air of sophistication to assuage the yearning for finer things in life, both spiritual and material. And the material flowed freely as Russia became an energy and commodities superpower.

If the Obama Administration is lost in the tall weeds on Russia, and it is, it is simply at sea when it comes to Egypt.

The Egyptian military's crackdown on peaceful protesters demanding the release of deposed President Mohamed Morsi has turned into a bloodbath, with the country run by a military junta fronted by lackluster civilians.

Obama emerged from his Martha's Vineyard vacation for a statement on Egypt, the second largest recipient of US aid in the world. (Israel is first.) The military coup that the administration won't call a coup turned late Wednesday into an ongoing massacre of supporters of Egypt's only democratically elected president, generals were named as governors of the provinces, and Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who famously helped front the coup against USC-educated President Mohamed Morsi as a champion of liberal reform, resigned as vice president, the post he took when others who backed the coup vetoed him being prime minister. Egypt may be in flames, but ElBaradei can return to Aspen.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ...

William Bradley Huffington Post Archive