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On Point

Obama's Smart Diplomacy: Keystone Kops, Emily Litella and Kabuki


by Austin Bay
September 3, 2013

Expanded intervention in Syria's civil war? The promised "red line" punitive strike? An equivocal pause for congressional rumination? Ambiguous postponement? Or... a "Saturday Night Live" Emily Litella "never mind" skit on the world stage -- farcical incompetence an obscene response to obscene tragedy?

The five preceding sentence fragments framed as questions sketch five potential near-term futures, each either created by or now operationally constrained by President Barack Obama's Aug. 20, 2012 "red line" declaration. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they could all occur. Near-simultaneity would be difficult, but given this past week's combination of Keystone Kops and kabuki, don't say it can't happen.

I realize at least a dozen commentators regard doing nothing as a policy option. In terms of Obama's self-bogged Syrian quagmire -- and his mess is a quagmire -- the Emily Litella "never mind" outcome is "do nothing" stripped of spin. I'm sorry, but for the president of the United States there is no doing nothing and there is no never mind. America's enemies and adversaries, and we have them, in abundance, constantly gauge American will and their estimate of the president is a key indicator.

The president of the United States threatened Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad with war. Yes, he did. Punitive air strikes are acts of war. JDAM bombs are not surgical scalpels. "Never mind" to the ear of a mass-murdering tyrant, especially after threatening him with war, echoes Neville Chamberlain's post-Munich 1938 laugh line: "Peace in our time."

France remembers the genocidal catastrophe that followed Munich. Remember France, the other nation in Obama's coalition of the willing, after Britain quit? Suddenly the "Bush lied, people died" media elites realize George W. Bush's Iraq coalition had 40 members -- so let's not talk about diplomatic preparation for military action, not right now, too embarrassing.

Obama promised to restore America's international reputation. Has he? In an interview published earlier this week in Le Monde, retired French General Vincent Desportes made the 1930s connection. At the moment Desportes is the Professor of Strategy at the Paris School of International Affairs. He also served as military attache in Washington. That's a sharp-guy job. It tells us that the French government trained him to be an America expert. When required, Desportes is expected to provide an alternative diplomatic conduit to senior American officials in both the Pentagon and the State Department.

Even if you dispute my read on his background, his comments in Le Monde are both disturbing and damning.

Asked what he thought of Obama's about face and decision to seek Congress authorization, Desportes expressed extreme agitation. "President Obama's volte-face (flip-flop) shows great contempt by the U.S. for France."

Interjection for Obama apologists still peddling "smart diplomacy": volte-OUCH.

Desportes' damnation continued: "The day before, President Hollande explained to the world why France takes responsibilities seriously. Then the next day, his great ally (Obama) creates an impasse."

Impasse can mean stand still or dead end. Fragments three through five reflect translation variants.

Acknowledging that nuclear-wannabe Iran watched closely, Desportes observed:  "Whether we like it or not, the major Western powers are guaranteeing international stability." Intervention in Syria "is more problematic" without a green light from the U.N. Security Council. However, today, the "image of the West, in the minds of our opponents, has seriously deteriorated. Our democracies are (in their minds) weak. And strategy? Strategy is understanding of the state of mind of the other (i.e., the enemy or adversary). Our democracies appear (to our enemies) to be as weak as they at the end of the 1930s."

Desportes speculated that gaining approval may mean Obama will have "to go (at Assad) hard" and be forced "to set new war goals." Possibly France, too, will be "driven to war."

Sentence fragment one: Expanded intervention in Syria's civil war. Will anti-war protestors hit the streets? Oh no, he's a Democrat! Obama promised smart diplomacy. He lied. In his 2013 State of the Union address, he said war was receding. He was wrong. Quagmire? Obama is a living, breathing credibility gap.

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