THE BLOG
09/05/2014 01:03 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2014

Obama: Mr. "We Don't Have A Strategy Yet" Does the Troubled NATO Summit

The UK's Cardiff, Wales is the place where Doctor Who is produced. Which makes it a fine location for the NATO summit.

Largely an exercise in fantasy, like the longest-running science fiction show on the planet, NATO, since the end of the Soviet superpower erased the Cold War fear of a Red Army surge through the heart of Western Europe to the Bay of Biscay, has been an institution in search of a new mission and an accident waiting to happen.

Which brings us to Libya, and the Ukrainian crisis with Russia.

In a moment.

Three crises, two at least in part of its own making, have reared their heads to demand attention from the venerable alliance: Libya, Isis, and Ukraine. And all of that affects something which pulls what is by far the most important component of NATO, the US, halfway round the world. That, of course, is the rise of China and America's not unrelated Asia-Pacific Pivot.


President Barack Obama admits that "We don't have a strategy yet" to deal with the world's most potent terrorist organization, during his end of August press conference.

The original plan for the summit, of course, had been to talk up the downshift in Afghanistan. But since that country's presidential election still hasn't been sorted out, months after the fact, what with all the massive corruption which took place, that doesn't really fly.

** Libya and the missing "Friends of" ...

Embarrassment kept this from being the big agenda item it should have been, but NATO's failures in Libya loomed large in private discussion in and around the summit.

Less than three years after NATO -- with France and Britain in insistently in the lead, with the US joining in to provide the needed value-added -- succeeded in ousting veteran dictator Moammar Gaddafi, what began as a mostly pro-American liberated nation is now in near total disarray. The national government has fled to Tobruk, for the historic capital Tripoli is now in the hands of Islamist militias. That includes the US embassy there.

The war cost the US virtually nothing. No casualties in terms of American personnel and budget dust in terms of expenditures.

But the peace, the peace proved to be very costly indeed.

We still don't really understand what happened in Benghazi on that fateful night nearly two years ago. Most of the folks evacuated after the 9/11 anniversary attacks, not to mention most of the casualties, were not State Department personnel but CIA.

Our intrepid ambassador appears to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught up in a larger dynamic. Not that we know any of this from the incessant Republican rage and hyper-partisan fingerprinting. Or from the witless Obama administration spin.

It's all a very far cry from the heady "Friends of Libya" days when then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, going well beyond the Anglo-Franco NATO cast of the intervention, convened a vast international coalition pledged to bring Libya into the 21st century. Which turned out to be just a lot of talk, quickly forgotten as Clinton and the others moved on.

Also exposed in the process was NATO's absolute inability to defeat Gadaffi's not especially impressive military without the US providing air intelligence, surveillance, and recon, command and control communications, aerial refueling, and heavyweight smart munitions. Then French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron were the red hots who drove the effort but it would have ended in ignominious failure had not Obama somewhat dutifully pitched in.

Of course, none of it could have happened had not Gadaffi conspired in his own demise by promising to massacre his Arab Awakening protest opponents just as the UN Security Council was considering taking action.

** Isis and the long open barn door ...

Does Obama have a strategy yet to deal with Isis? When I wrote about this last week, senior members of his administration were signaling that he was just about to decide to direct air strikes into the world's richest terrorist organization's original strongholds in Syria. Obama's refusal to do so -- because it would help the Assad regime stay in power -- effectively granted Isis a safe haven.

But Obama had not decided to reverse his foolhardy stance. As he so memorably stated at his presser at the end of last week, "We don't have a strategy yet" to deal with what he now says is the grave threat posed by the organization he dismissed earlier this year as the "JV" (junior varsity) of jihadism.

Now he has yet another excuse to temporize. He's organizing a coalition with NATO to take them on. That, of course, would be the NATO that couldn't handle Gaddafi's regime without the US providing the difference-maker.

After awhile, it becomes obvious that all these months of analysis and diplomacy -- let's not forget the delays to force a change in the increasingly irrelevant Baghdad government -- are a series of excuses for a national security apparatus that doesn't know what it is doing.

By the time Obama does get around to having a strategy, it may be too late.

At least he has done the bare minimum of helping protect the Kurds, whose future independent state is likely to be the only US ally left in that part of the Middle East.

** Ukraine and "Reset" Russia ...

And the Ukrainian crisis. Which exists because some folks thought it a clever idea to back the overthrow of a democratically elected, Russia friendly leader of a country a few hundred miles from Moscow just as the prideful Vladimir Putin was presiding over the climax of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

To be fair, Obama did have a very good idea back in 2009 when he announced a "reset" of relations with a modernizing Russia. It was just very flawed from the beginning, when Hillary Clinton presented Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with the ceremonial reset button only to learn immediately that what her crack staff thought said "reset" actually said "overcharge."

But Obama's problem was far deeper than his secretary of state's failure to have a real Russian speaker look at her big prop for the global media. For Obama didn't know who he was really dealing with in Moscow. And he failed to listen to a critically important warning he received there.

As I wrote at the time, Obama's 2009 Moscow trip was marked by his failure to grasp that Vladimir Putin was the real power in Russia, not Putin's former chief of staff whom he installed for a term in the presidency to avoid having to change the constitution. And when Purin forced Obama to travel to his dacha outside Moscow, where he delivered a lengthy lecture about Russia's core priorities which made Obama late for his own featured speech of the trip, Obama failed to hear what Putin was telling him.

Much of it, as I wrote at the time, was about Ukraine and Russia's absolute bottom line insistence that the US and other Western powers stop trying to pull it into their geopolitical orbit.

Yet there was Obama's assistant secretary of state for Europe, Victoria Nuland, cheering on demonstrators in Kiev's Maidan square, urging the overthrow of the democratically elected Russia friendly president. And there Nuland was on a mobile phone intercept, dismissing one popular potential replacement as Ukraine's president, a former world heavyweight boxing champ, Vitali Klitschko, in favor of a different path. Which led to the election of a Ukrainian oligarch, billionaire chocolate manufacturer Petro Poroshenko.

Like her husband Robert Kagan, a founder of the '90s era Project for A New American Century, Nuland is a neoconservative, a champion of the Iraq War. She worked for then President Bill Clinton when he pushed for the expansion of post-Cold War NATO to Russia's borders. Then she was a senior advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and served as George W. Bush's ambassador to NATO before returning to Clinton service as Hillary's State Dept. spokesperson.

Ukraine, not at all incidentally from Russia's point of view, is only a few hundred miles from Moscow. As Putin made plain to Obama five years ago, having a NATO member or ally in that position is anathema to his country.

Like any serious student of world history, the Russians recall that the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which brought a period of peace between Hitler and Stalin, allowed the Soviet Union to bring its defensive positions 200 kilometers forward. As a result, the Nazi invasion of Russia had further to go when Hitler launched his decapitation strike against Moscow in 1941. That attack finally ended within sight of the gates of Moscow. In December 1941. Had the Russians not had enough strategic depth with which to weaken the Nazi advance, Moscow would have fallen and that disaster, coupled with the disaster at Pearl Harbor a few days later would likely have led to a very different outcome in World War II.

** Baiting the bear ignores the reality of NATO ...

So baiting the bear on Ukraine hits in a sore spot for a history-minded and rather paranoid Russia. Then there's the fact that Putin's side is winning in the internal Ukrainian conflict. Not surprisingly.

Some red hots in Washington and NATO want to intervene, by sending arms for the latest Ukrainian government and bringing Ukraine not only into the European Union but formally into NATO as well.

But all that is really a cover for putting the US even more at loggerheads with Russia. For the NATO bureaucracy's response to the situation is non-serious in the extreme.

In the event of bringing Ukraine into NATO, or the even more unlikely event of a Russian invasion of Baltic states once part of the Soviet empire and now in NATO, Brussels, having devised a Readiness Action Plan (RAP) proposes the creation of a 4000 member Rapid Action Force to deploy in 48 hours. As that would be nothing more than a speed bump for the Red Army, its commander would certainly be known as CRAP.

Absent the US, NATO really isn't very much, as we saw in Libya. At every summit, there is a push for increased involvement by the European partners. But the reality is that only four of the 28 NATO members -- US, UK, Estonia, and Greece -- meet the alliance's formal target of spending at least two percent of GDP on the military.

** The challenge of China and the Asia Pacific Pivot gets harder ...

Since nothing happens in isolation in geopolitics, the old Cold War adversary that really is positioned to become a superpower, China, is paying avid attention to NATO's woes and Obama's flawed and non-existent strategies.

The Obama administration likes to say it's just a case of rogue pilots, but the reality is that Chinese fighters over international waters in the hotly disputed South China Sea -- virtually all of which the PRC claims sovereignty over, to the dismay and anger of its neighbors around that very strategic body of water -- have engaged in a series of dangerous maneuvers in very close proximity to US Navy aircraft.

Obama's failure to grapple with Isis, his slide into a foolish crisis with Russia, and the collapse of Western strategy in Libya just a few years after NATO liberated the place all give rise to new tests of the Obama administration's decision-making in the very part of the world that he supposedly wants to make the center of US geostrategy.

Obama needs to change all this, and fast, if he expects his administration to be taken seriously, in Beijing or anywhere else.

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