More signs are pointing towards as many as two new arenas for U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, with strategic and political circumstances putting Syria and Iran in American cross-hairs before this November’s “historic” presidential election.
While much of the campaign is framed by the media as a clash of vast ideological differences between President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, foreign policy is one discipline where the two rivals share a similarly hawkish outlook on projecting American power abroad. With only minimal disparity, Obama and Romney have set up the nation for sustained and aggressive militancy on behalf of U.S. national and political interests overseas.
In a region full of tense flashpoints, Syria and Iran have become the dominant features of a Middle East that is hanging in the balance at the behest of American interventionism. But while foreign policy, like most every issue in an election year, has become the focus of a partisan war of words between the candidates, the substantive details of what President Obama has done and GOP nominee Romney has proposed reveal little daylight in the practical worldview of the two men.
Joined by conservative hawks like John McCain that have endorsed his presidential bid, former Massachusetts Gov. Romney has publicly attacked Obama’s response to the ongoing rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Romney has called for the United States to arm the Syrian rebels fighting against the government so they can “defend themselves,” and ultimately topple Assad.
In fact, the Obama administration has been repeatedly shifting its policy towards intervention in Syria, becoming one of the leading outside supporters of the Syrian opposition as the conflict has grown. It is a policy closely modeled on the one used by the president against Libya and eventually successful in deposing Muammar Qaddafi last year, where international pressure led by the U.S. eventually led to outright military action.
This spring, the United States announced it would send more than $25 million in “humanitarian” and tactical financial assistance to the rebels, part of a conference organized by the U.S. that collected nearly $200 million in international aid for rebel fighters.
Now the United States has adopted an even more aggressive Syrian policy, inching its closest yet to full-blown intervention and mimicking the early days of America’s war against Libya.
While publicly shying away from formal military action against Syria, President Obama signed a “secret” executive order giving the CIA and other American intelligence assets authority to use any means necessary to assist opposition forces in Syria with the ultimate goal of ousting President Assad from power.
The president’s intelligence “finding” — issued at an unknown date earlier this year — gives broad permission to U.S. forces that allows for official coordination and collaboration with Syrian rebel groups. Such aid has already been documented as giving the rebels a significant advantage over government troops, with observers noting improvements in rebel tactics and intelligence gathering that had heretofore been unexplained.
President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing U.S. support for rebels seeking to depose Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government, sources familiar with the matter said.
Obama’s order, approved earlier this year and known as an intelligence “finding,” broadly permits the CIA and other U.S. agencies to provide support that could help the rebels oust Assad.
This and other developments signal a shift toward growing, albeit still circumscribed, support for Assad’s armed opponents – a shift that intensified following last month’s failure of the U.N. Security Council to agree on tougher sanctions against the Damascus government.
The White House is for now apparently stopping short of giving the rebels lethal weapons, even as some U.S. allies do just that.
But U.S. and European officials have said that there have been noticeable improvements in the coherence and effectiveness of Syrian rebel groups in the past few weeks. That represents a significant change in assessments of the rebels by Western officials, who previously characterized Assad’s opponents as a disorganized, almost chaotic, rabble.
Precisely when Obama signed the secret intelligence authorization, an action not previously reported, could not be determined.
The full extent of clandestine support that agencies like the CIA might be providing also is unclear.
The U.S. intervention campaign is based in Turkey at the sprawling Incirlik American air base in the southern part of that country. The base has the potential to funnel substantial technical, tactical, and intelligence assistance to Syria’s opposition, as well as direct strikes when or if the administration approves military action.
A U.S. government source acknowledged that under provisions of the presidential finding, the United States was collaborating with a secret command center operated by Turkey and its allies.
Last week, Reuters reported that, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey had established a secret base near the Syrian border to help direct vital military and communications support to Assad’s opponents.
This “nerve center” is in Adana, a city in southern Turkey about 60 miles from the Syrian border, which is also home to Incirlik, a U.S. air base where U.S. military and intelligence agencies maintain a substantial presence
The U.S. government has also announced more financial aid to the rebels outside of the president’s executive order. The state department revealed that nearly $100 million in “non-lethal” and humanitarian assistance has been released to anti-Assad forces.
Many experts see Obama’s order for “secret” military aid and other signs that the U.S. is becoming more forceful in its support of the rebels as a precursor to direct military intervention, including an invasion by American troops.
Awed by the rapid disintegration of the Qaddafi regime in Libya once the U.S. and NATO launched air strikes, both the Obama administration and pro-war hawks in Romney’s camp say the same thing could be done against Assad in Syria. But the two political rivals are fearfully unprepared for such an undertaking according to one report.
An analysis done by the well-respected Brookings Institution finds that a “properly executed” intervention in Syria to remove President Assad would take as many as 300,000 U.S. troops and cost at least $300 billion per year. The report concludes that ousting the Syrian government “may not be doable.”
Brewing alongside Syria as the other diplomatic hotspot in the Middle East is Iran, where the years of Western allegations of a state-sponsored Iranian nuclear weapons program have continued to degenerate into harsh rhetoric and unbreakable tensions. U.S. military might has been beefed up in the Persian Gulf, and many observers continue to predict an Israeli strike on Iran’s purported nuclear sites at any time.
Wading into the question of how far the United States should go in pressuring the Iranian government or backing perpetual ally Israel if they decide on a military course of action is Gov. Romney, who has sought to distinguish himself from the president by promising that he will stop Iran’s suspected nuclear ambitions.
Round upon round of crippling economic sanctions imposed by the United States and European nations have led to immense suffering among the Iranian people, but critics of this approach — including Mitt Romney – insist that these have failed and aren’t enough to stop what they claim is Iran’s advanced nuclear bomb-making ability.
Now Romney’s campaign has taken the most aggressive tack yet in announcing full support of the Israeli government if they decide to launch a military strike on Iran. A top foreign policy adviser to the Republican presidential nominee told reporters covering Romney’s recent trip to Israel that he would “respect” Israel’s right to “take action on its own” in order to “stop Iran from developing” nuclear weapons.
Dan Senor, Romney special adviser on foreign policy, told reporters in advance of a speech Romney will give in Jerusalem that the candidate believes it is “unacceptable for Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability.”
“If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision,” Senor told reporters.
The Romney campaign, realizing the tacit approval given for the Israel government to declare war on Iran, later walked back part of that statement. But the language was not all that different from that used by Romney himself during his major foreign policy speech in Israel last week, in which he said the United States “should employ any and all measures” to “dissuade” the Iranians from continuing with their nuclear program, up to and including a military option.
Overall tensions between Iran, Israel and the United States have been surging in recent weeks, with “concern” growing among U.S. government and military officials that the Israelis are planning a military strike and outright war.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in Israel this week as talks between the Americans and Israelis on proposals for Iran “intensify.” The meeting, in which Panetta reaffirmed that the United States is preparing “options” to make sure Iran does not posses a nuclear weapon,come as some of the top officials in the Obama administration and U.S. military have traveled to Israel over the summer, spiking predictions of a looming joint attack on the Iranian regime.
Israeli Prime Minister Benajamin Netanyahu hinted that it may be too late to thwart his plans for a military response to Iran’s purported nuclear ambitions. At the same event with Secretary Panetta, Netanyahu warned the Americans that “time to resolve this issue peacefully” is “running out,” and that he expects the U.S. to back up promises that they will “act” in support of Israel.
“You yourself said a few months ago that when all else fails, America will act. But these declarations have also not yet convinced the Iranians to stop their program. However forceful our statements, they have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them,” Netanyahu said during the meeting.
”Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change and it must change quickly, because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out,” the PM argued.
While Romney and conservatives in support of his candidacy have been more vocal in calling for more aggressive action to back an Israeli military strike or to use other means to thwart Iran than the president, even foreign policy experts agree that there is virtually no daylight between the substantive positions of the two men vying to be the nation’s next commander in chief.
While Romney and his advisors talk tough to appease Israel and Jewish voters, his formal position differs little from the current stance of the United States on the question of Iran. And while the Obama White House and its fans are quick to call out their GOP opponent for reckless language, the president has given every indication that an Israeli attack on Iran would have the support of the United States and its military.
One foreign policy veteran says that Obama and Romney are “almost identical” when it comes to their positions on the Iranian crisis and Middle East policy.
Romney’s stance is “almost identical” to Obama’s position, which seeks increased international pressure on Iran while keeping a military option “on the table,” noted Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration who now is foreign policy director at the Brookings Institution.
“It’s hard to see what the difference is, since Gov. Romney and his spokesman make it clear that sanctions and negotiations would be tried and force should be kept on the table as a last resort,” Indyk told CNN on Monday.
Even Romney seemed to recognize the similarity, telling CNN in an interview broadcast Monday that “our president has said and I have said that it is unacceptable for Iran to become nuclear.”
Indeed, no one has done more to increase the chances of a war with Iran than Barack Obama. By acquiescing to Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s disregard for realistic negotiations with Iran, the president has surrendered the initiative and left the U.S. at the mercy of the Israelis in terms of when or if a military strike is considered the last remaining option.
President Obama — and not Romney or the Republicans — has led a “drift toward war,” says Robert Wright in The Atlantic.
There are two ways the administration’s current negotiating position–virtual paralysis induced by fear of political blowback–could lead to war.
First, an autumn military strike by Israel could draw the U.S. into war with Iran. I’m generally skeptical of stories about how Israel is going to bomb Iran any moment now. But the chances of an Israeli strike aren’t zero, and the time when they’d be furthest from zero is before the presidential election; Netanyahu knows that a pre-election Obama would be more inclined than a post-election Obama to provide uncomplaining and robust military support in the wake of an Israeli strike.
But there’s one thing that would make it hard for Netanyahu to stage an October surprise: substantial progress in negotiations with Iran. If Iran has just surrendered the uranium that is closest to weapons grade, and has quit making more of it, and the international community is hailing this progress toward a peaceful and comprehensive solution of the Iran problem, it becomes very hard for Netanyahu to ruin everyone’s day with a war.
So make no mistake about it: If Obama fails to nail down a deal on 20 percent enrichment–which he could probably do at the upcoming Moscow talks if he gave negotiators the green light–he will be increasing the chances of war.