Reprinted from Consortium News
The mystery of the Obama administration's foreign policy has always been whether President Barack Obama has two separate strategies: one "above the table" waving his arms and talking tough like Official Washington's arm-chair warriors do -- and another "below the table" where he behaves as a pragmatic realist, playing footsy with foreign adversaries.
From the start, Obama surrounded himself with many hawkish advisers -- such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Gen. David Petraeus, National Security Council aide Samantha Power, etc. -- and mostly reads the scripts that they wrote for him. But then he tended to drag his feet or fold his arms when it came to acting on their warmongering ideas.
Friday's decision to tank the hapless $500 million training program for "moderate" Syrian rebels is a case in point. Obama joined in the hyperbolic rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, lining up with the neocons and liberal interventionists demanding "Assad must go," but Obama has remained unenthusiastic about their various wacky schemes for overthrowing Assad.
In 2012, Obama resisted plans from Petraeus, Clinton and other hawks to invest significantly in a program for training and arming rebels and to impose a no-fly zone over rebel-controlled territory inside Syria, which would require destroying Syria's air defenses and much of its air force. In other words, it would have been a major act of war with the prospect of the kind of bloody chaos that a similar "responsibility to protect" strategy -- pushed by Clinton and Power -- unleashed on Libya in 2011 and that continues to the present.
Among other problems of the Petraeus-Clinton scheme for Syria -- such as being a gross violation of international law -- the plan would have amounted to support for international terrorism given the thorough terrorist infiltration of the Syrian rebel movement. And it almost certainly would not have achieved the goal of a moderate "regime change." The far more likely outcome would have been even worse sectarian bloodshed and quite possibly a victory for Al Qaeda or a related terrorist band.
In one candid moment, Obama told New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman that it was "a fantasy" to think that such a U.S.-backed "moderate" rebel force could do much good. Nevertheless, Obama eventually caved in to political/media pressure and agreed to a "covert" CIA training mission and later to the $500 million program which, the Pentagon says, put about "four or five" fighters into the field in Syria.
Besides the obvious failure to field a significant Pentagon-trained "moderate" force, there was the additional problem that the "moderate" CIA-trained rebels kept sharing their military skills and weapons with coalitions of Syrian rebels dominated by Al Qaeda's Nusra Front and/or the Islamic State. Many U.S.-supplied weapons ended up in the hands of Nusra fighters who used U.S. TOW anti-tank missiles against the Syrian army around the city of Idlib.
Whether intentionally or not, the U.S. policy was advancing the prospects of a Sunni terrorist victory in Syria, which could lead to a bloodbath of Christians, Alawites, Shiites and other "infidels" -- as well as driving millions more Syrian refugees into Turkey and Europe, thus spreading the destabilization of the Middle East into the middle of Europe.
So, by pulling the plug on the $500 million training program, Obama was finally facing up to reality -- that it would be a humanitarian and strategic disaster if Al Qaeda and/or the Islamic State defeated Assad's Syrian army. At his press conference on Oct. 2, Obama even blurted out that most of the "half-baked ideas" for intervening in Syria were just "a bunch of mumbo jumbo."
But Obama could not fully bring himself to repudiate the U.S. military interference, replacing the failed training program with another scheme that would simply give weapons and ammunition to some rebel leaders considered reliable in the battle against the Islamic State -- a compromise approach that even the hawkish New York Times editorial page deemed "hallucinatory."
A Schizophrenic Approach
In essence, these inconsistencies between Obama's words and deeds reflect the schizophrenic nature of Obama's "above-the-table" and "below-the-table" split personality.
While the "above-the-table" Obama continues to rant against Assad and Russia's decision to step up its support for his government, the "under-the-table" Obama appears to recognize that the Russian entrance into the war is not the catastrophe that Official Washington, including Obama and his advisers, have made it out to be. Indeed, despite the fiery rhetoric from Obama and his aides, there is a logical correlation between Obama's core interests in Syria and those of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Obama has resisted the idea of committing hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to another full-scale war in the Middle East, which might well be the inevitable result of a victorious Islamic State engaging in mass executions of "infidels" in Damascus or of Al Qaeda transforming Syria into a new more central location to plot terror attacks on the West.
The prospects for a terrorist victory are diminished if the Russian air support -- and Iranian ground assistance -- can help the Syrian military roll back the gains of the Islamic State and the Army of Conquest, which is dominated by Al Qaeda's Nusra Front.