Monday, January 25, 2010

Barack and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Foreign Policy Week

In a way, President Obama is lucky that last week's special election in Massachusetts went so poorly for his party and domestic agenda; it did succeed in distracting the American public from the disastrous foreign policy week he had. It's not clear which revelation is worse: Obama's admission that his administration had overestimated its ability to achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or the fact that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber of Christmas day, was revealing scads of details about his plot and al Qaeda's operations until he was read his Miranda rights, at which point he shut up and demanded a lawyer.

The former revelation came in an interview with the president by Joe Klein in Time on the one-year anniversary of Obama's inauguration. After noting that the peace process hadn't moved along as he had hoped, Obama unleashed this stunner: "Both sides — the Israelis and the Palestinians — have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that." Obama went on to say that "it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high."

Seriously? Does Obama think that every other president has failed to make headway in the Israel-Palestinian conflict for lack of trying? The Israelis and Palestinians have not "found" that their domestic political systems make it difficult for them to make peace; they've known in for quite some time now. In fact, to some degree, they've set their systems up to make peacemaking more difficult (it's an excellent negotiating strategy: I'd love to make a deal, but my domestic situation won't let me, so it's all on you!). But what's even worse is that this seems to have come as a surprise to Obama. Over at his Foreign blog, Stephen Walt notes that:
It's not as if the dysfunctional condition of Israeli and Palestinian internal politics was a dark mystery when Obama took office, or when Netanyahu formed the most hard-line government in Israeli history. Which advisors told Obama and Mitchell to proceed as they did, raising expectations sky-high in the Cairo speech, publicly insisting on a settlement freeze, and then engaging in a humiliating retreat? Did they ever ask themselves what they would do if Netanyahu dug in his heels, as anyone with a triple-digit IQ should have expected?
Walt, however, seems to assume that the assumptions did not come from Obama himself and it's not clear why. Even if it was his advisors who made such a bone-headed assumption, it was Obama who picked the advisors. To me, this reveals an incredible amount, in relatively equal parts, of hubris and naivety on the part of the president. It's as if he assumed that his enormous popularity would be enough to break the impasses of one of the world's most intractable conflicts. I can't really think of another explanation for thinking that it would be relatively easy for the US to lean on both sides and produce a breakthrough.

Perhaps worse than Obama's problems in the Middle East was the disastrous handling of the underwear bomber. It's bad enough that the decision was made to read Abdulmutallab his Miranda rights, but it's not even entirely clear who made that decision. In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee last week Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Michael Leiter, chief of the National Counterterrorism Center,all admitted that they were not consulted about how to deal with Abdulmutallab. And please note that this isn't necessarily a question of whether terrorists like Abdulmutallab should be dealt with by the civilian or military judicial systems; law enforcement officials are allowed to not read a suspect his Miranda rights if they believe there is an imminent threat to public safety that could be prevented by un-Miranda-ized questioning. And that was undoubtedly the case as al Qaeda has, in the past, used nearly synchronized attacks as a method to increase the impact of its actions (e.g. the joint bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, not to mention the multiple planes used in the 9/11 attacks).

However, by Mirandizing Abdulmutallb, the investigators put an end to any chance of determining of another attack was forthcoming. As the Associated Press notes, "Abdulmutallab spoke freely and provided valuable intelligence.... [He] repeatedly made incriminating statements...talking in detail about what he'd done and the planning that went into the attack. Other counterterrorism officials speaking on condition of anonymity said it was during this questioning that he admitted he had been trained and instructed in the plot by al-Qaida operatives in Yemen." However, "when [federal agents] read him his legal rights nearly 10 hours after the incident, he went silent."

This was a mistake of colossal proportions, and not just because of the potential intelligence that was lost. The fact that not one of the senior policy officials -- the DNI, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, and as Byron York notes, the Director of the FBI -- shows a serious lack of judgment by both the agents in the field and by the Obama administration that seems to have empowered the Department of Justice and Attorney General Eric Holder over the main counterterror organizations. After the hearing in the Senate, all seven Republicans on the Homeland Security Committee sent a letter to President Obama asking whether the administration now has "a protocol or policy in place for handling al Qaeda terrorists captured in the United States."

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