“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.”
- Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1513)
Is Obama a foreign policy genius - a modern day Machiavelli - or an inept ingénue?
Consider some recent and some ongoing cases.
1. During the US presidential election campaign, Barack Obama mocked his opponent, Mitt Romney for saying that Russia was a threat - opting instead to forgive Russia past transgressions, press the restart button and have 'business as usual' relations. China, he asserted, was the real threat, even as Chinese money kept the US economy afloat.
Yet, as has widely been pointed out, the Russian military interventions in Ukraine, which have led to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and to the entrenchment of separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, directly challenge the post-Cold War consensus. Eastern Ukraine follows on other more tentative land-grabs, and in turn will be followed by greater prizes - Estonia, Lithuania… And if incursions there show the NATO lion cannot roar, why not further?
2. In Syria, faced with a choice between supporting the moderate rebels, and leaving the extremists to take over, he opted for the latter policy - with the result that the Assad government recovered lost ground and ISIS became a regional force. Originally, U.S. intelligence saw the terror group as a U.S. strategic asset. Now though, as David Kilcullen, the US military strategist said to have saved Iraq through the 'surge' has put it:
'Western countries have a clear interest in destroying ISIS, but counter-insurgency should not even be under discussion. This is a straight-up conventional fight against a state-like entity, and the goal should be to utterly annihilate ISIS as a state.'Just unfortunate then that ISIS has now become a force that would require a greater military effort than that of the original Iraq war. Your move, Professor!
3. But it is in Ukraine that his judgements seem most dangerous. Obama has apparently decided that there is no strategic significance to allowing Russia to annex parts of the former Soviet Union. Of course, the morality of this do not concern him - a man who says in one of his books that he learned his his ethics from the backs of cereal packets. In pursuit of this policy there have been so substantial sanctions, although there is a possibility that the US was involved in the Saudi policy of lowering the world price of oil - which has hurt the Russians. Under Obama there has been no access to arms and training, leaving the hopelessly amateurish and poorly equipped Ukrainian conscripts to be slaughtered in their thousands by the separatists backed by Russian special forces and the very best equipment that the Russians have.
4. In Egypt, Obama sided with the Egyptian military against the democracy movement, in due course helping to usher in a new and if anything even more vicious regime than that run by the US's client Hosni Mubarak.
5. As for the Palestine-Israel conflict, Obama has managed to present the US as both powerless and inept - threatening responses and laying down red lines which he never has any intention of following through on. The Israeli Prime Minster is encouraged to treat him with contempt.
6. And then, earlier this month, his international trade agenda was left in tatters after even the Democratic minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, voted against his plans to for a new bill, going directly against Obama less than three hours after the president begged his party’s caucus to support it.
7. Not to foget the War in Europe, entirely! The economic policies one between Greece and the Eurozone, that is. Here, Obama weighed in on the side of Greece, ordering the rest of Europe to forgive its trangressions and, well, bend the Eurozone rules a little. Such advice might have been deeeply probematic for the Eurozone if followed - it certainly helped reduce the liklihood of the Greek's seeking a compromise. Result - this week - boom!
The fact is, Obama sees himself as a true Machiavellian Prince, one who presents one face to the world while acting in a quite different way in secret. He sees himself as enhancing US geopolitical and structural power; strengthening the American identity (hence the oft-repeated determination to stop the torture programme and release the extra-judicial prisoners such as those held at Guantanamo, policies he has no intention of genuinely carrying out) and the search for domestic political consolidation.
According to former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski:
'He’s not a softy. But he’s a person who tries to think through these events so you can draw some long-term conclusions.'The longterm consequence of policy in the Middle East seems likely to be polarisation - between a US-backed series of kleptocracies and ultra-Islamists. In Europe, it is likely to be a 'hot war' between the Western Europeans and the Russians. In general, Obama seems to be sowing the seeds of global chaos - but a chaos in which perhaps for some it can be imagined that Continental United States will be immune. If that is indeed his aim, it is certainly a piece of cynicism worthy of the Italian master himself.
Further, or is it backwards? reading here