US President Barack Obama’s business-like meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit at the weekend belies a spate of bellicose comments made by the Pentagon towards Moscow. So, who is in control: Obama or the generals?
The two leaders held an earnest 35-minute face-to-face discussion on the opening day of the G20 conference in Antalya, Turkey. The gathering of the world’s top 20 economic nations was dominated by the massive terror attack in Paris two days earlier, which claimed at least 129 lives and hundreds more wounded.
Obama’s meeting with Putin – their first since Russia launched its military intervention in Syria nearly seven weeks ago – was described by the White House as “constructive”.
The American president even appeared to welcome Russian airstrikes against terror groups fighting the Syrian government, most prominently Islamic State (IS) jihadists, also known as ISIL.
“As the diplomacy continues, President Obama welcomed efforts by all nations to confront the terrorist group ISIL and noted the importance of Russia’s military efforts in Syria focusing on the group,” said a White House spokesman.
That’s quite a contrast in substance and tone from a speech made by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter only a week before.
In a blustering tirade, Carter labeled Russia a “global threat” in a speech at the Reagan Library in California. He denounced Russia for “nuclear saber-rattling” and “aggression” in Europe and he slammed Putin’s military operation in Syria as “throwing gasoline” on a fire, which, he said, would lead to more terrorism across the Middle East.
Carter may have said, in passing, that the US did not want a “hot war” with Russia, but his overall thrust was one of unalloyed belligerence towards Moscow. The Pentagon chief also bracketed Russia with the terror group, Islamic State, as a main national security risk.
That depiction of Russia as a global threat along with jihadi terrorists is flatly contradicted by Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic engagement with Russia.
Kerry has praised his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in helping to seal the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, for instance. And while attending the latest round of talks on the Syria conflict in Vienna this weekend, there was the usual bonhomie rapport between the top American and Russian diplomats.
Indeed Kerry and Lavrov issued a joint statement condemning the terrorist massacre in Paris, and both emphasized that the atrocity underlined the urgency to find a negotiated resolution to the crisis in Syria.
This is by no means the first time that a schism has become apparent in Washington with regard to Russia.
Back in July, Obama and Kerry both issued embarrassing repudiations of the Pentagon’s hawkish line on Russia. That was after General Joseph F Dunford in his nomination to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Congress that Russia posed “an existential threat to the United States.”
“If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia,” Dunford said. “And if you look at their behavior, it’s nothing short of alarming.”
Kerry’s spokesman at the State Department, Mark Toner, immediately scotched that belligerent view, saying: “The secretary [Kerry] doesn’t agree with the assessment that Russia is an existential threat to the United States, quite frankly.”
That repudiation was also echoed by the White House whose spokesman Josh Earnest said that General Dunford’s comments reflected “his own view and doesn’t necessarily reflect the consensus analysis of the president’s national security team.”
That’s not to say Obama and Kerry, and their respective teams, have become all dovish. Kerry has previously denounced Russia’s alleged aggression in Ukraine and President Putin of “trying to change borders down the barrel of a gun.” Obama has also referred to Russia as a global threat alongside jihadi terrorism while addressing the United Nations General Assembly.
Nevertheless, there appears to be an unmistakable divergence opening up in Washington, with, at the extreme, the Pentagon, CIA and hotheads in Congress like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who want to “shoot down Russian fighter jets” in Syria.
The contradiction in US foreign policy is perhaps most acutely seen in Syria. Obama sends in special forces, after four years of saying no boots on the ground despite one failed training program after another; the White House is apparently pursuing diplomacy at Vienna, yet Washington is moving to step up anti-tank TOW rockets and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to unknown “select rebels”.
One way of better understanding the apparent contradictions and zigzags is that the Pentagon and CIA are running policies separately and covertly from the official stance of the White House and State Department.
John Kerry vows that he is trying to end the carnage in Syria through political talks in Vienna. But the signs are that the covert warmongers in the CIA are intent on fuelling more conflict in Syria, even if that means triggering an all-out confrontation with Russia.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the CIA, along with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, is preparing to supply surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to militants in Syria “even though Obama has long rebuffed that idea.”
What we may be seeing in US policy is competing agendas. The diplomatic track appears to be favored by the White House and State Department as a more efficacious way of achieving regime change against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the Pentagon, and specifically the CIA, has its own militarist schemes, even if that means providing weapons to terror groups with much greater fire power and risking a proxy war with Russia.
The upshot is that US foreign policy is dangerously all over the place because of competing power players within Washington. The disturbing conclusion is that the American president and his State Department are simply not in control. It’s like watching a driver of an articulated truck whose grip on the wheel has no steering.
A deep, darker state within the official state is by no means a new concept to describe American government and its foreign policy. More than 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy was so perplexed by CIA covert operations undermining him on Cuba and Vietnam that he declared he would “smash it into a thousand pieces.” That intention probably caused Kennedy his life at the hands of the deep state and its military-industrial complex.
Today, it is very doubtful that any American politician would have the courage or conviction to pull rank on the military-industrial complex. The latter appears to be more assertive and belligerent than ever, as can be seen from the seemingly irrational contradictions of US foreign policy on Russia and Syria. And that unaccountable power-play makes for a highly dangerous dynamic.
Washington often proclaims that it is “protecting the world”. The truth is that the world needs protecting from the US whose foreign policies are increasingly reckless and beyond any democratic control.
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation, Information Clearing House and Press TV.