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Can Obama Speak Strongly for Peace?

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On the op-ed page of Saturday's New York Times, Sen. John McCain gave Obama a taste of what that will be like. The newspaper version of the op-ed was entitled "Obama Made America Look Weak" with a subhead saying, "Crimea is our chance to restore our country's credibility."

McCain, the neocon/hawkish Republican who lost to Obama in 2008, wrote:

"Crimea has exposed the disturbing lack of realism that has characterized our foreign policy under President Obama. It is this worldview, or lack of one, that must change. For five years, Americans have been told that 'the tide of war is receding,' that we can pull back from the world at little cost to our interests and values. This has fed a perception that the United States is weak, and to people like Mr. Putin, weakness is provocative. ...

"In Afghanistan and Iraq, [Obama's] military decisions have appeared driven more by a desire to withdraw than to succeed. Defense budgets have been slashed based on hope, not strategy. Iran and China have bullied America's allies at no discernible cost."

McCain also restated the old narrative blaming the Syrian government for the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack near Damascus, even though that case has largely collapsed. McCain wrote: "Perhaps worst of all, Bashar al-Assad crossed President Obama's 'red line' by using chemical weapons in Syria, and nothing happened to him."

The New York Times, which only grudgingly acknowledged its own erroneous reporting on the Syria CW incident, made no effort on Saturday to insist that McCain's accusations were truthful, fitting with how major U.S. news organizations have performed as propaganda vehicles rather than serious journalistic entities in recent decades. [For more on the Syrian dispute, see Consortiumnews.com's "The Mistaken Guns of Last August."]

From McCain's op-ed and other neocon writings, it's also clear that the new goal is to go beyond Ukraine and use it as a lever to destabilize and topple Putin himself. McCain wrote: "Eventually, Russians will come for Mr. Putin in the same way and for the same reasons that Ukrainians came for Viktor F. Yanukovych. We must prepare for that day now."

This plan for overthrowing Putin was expressed, too, by neocon Carl Gershman, the longtime president of the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, a more than $100 million-a-year slush fund that was founded in 1983 to provide financial support for groups organizing to destabilize governments that Official Washington considered troublesome.

In a Washington Post op-ed last September, Gershman wrote that "Ukraine is the biggest prize," but added that once Ukraine was pried loose from a close association with Russia, the next target would be Putin, who "may find himself on the losing end not just in the near abroad but within Russia itself."

If President Obama doesn't actually believe that the United States should undertake the willful destabilization of nuclear-armed Russia, he might want to tell the American people before these matters get out of hand. He also should describe more honestly the events now overtaking Ukraine.

But it has been Obama's custom to allow his administration's foreign policy to be set by powerful "rivals" who often have profoundly different notions about what needs to be done in the world. Obama then tries to finesse their arguments, more like the moderator of an academic debate than President.

The best documented case of this pattern was how Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General David Petraeus maneuvered Obama into what turned out to be a pointless "surge" in Afghanistan in 2009. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Robert Gates Double-Crosses Obama."]

Kerry's Double-Dealing

But Obama has been undercut, too, by his current Secretary of State John Kerry, who has behaved more like President John McCain's top diplomat than President Obama's. To the surprise of many Democratic friends, Kerry has chosen to take highly belligerent -- and factually dubious -- positions on Iran, Syria and now Ukraine.

For instance, on Aug. 30, 2013, Kerry delivered what sounded like a declaration of war against Syria over what Kerry falsely presented as clear-cut evidence that the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad had launched a major chemical weapons attack on Damascus suburbs. But Kerry never presented any actual evidence to support his charges, and subsequent investigations, including a scientific assessment on the limited range of the one Sarin-laden missile, undercut Kerry's claims.

After Kerry's bombastic speech, President Putin helped President Obama find a face-saving way out of the crisis by getting Assad to agree to eliminate his entire chemical weapons arsenal (though Assad continued denying any role in the attack). Last fall, Putin also assisted Obama in getting Iran to sign an agreement on limiting its nuclear program, though Kerry again nearly scuttled the deal.

As Obama quietly tried to build on his collaboration with Putin, Kerry's State Department undercut the relationship once more when neocon holdover Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland stoked the crisis in Ukraine on Russia's border.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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