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Washington’s World: September 1st – September 7th, 2014

As President Obama heads to the September 3rd-4th NATO Summit in the UK, he himself has acknowledged that “We don't have a strategy” in terms of Iraq and ISIL. Indeed, we hear that the 28th August NSC meeting revealed drastically different opinions given in sharp terms about the most advisable way forward. There is a clear divide between elements in the military and intelligence community who believe that a no-holds-barred campaign of air strikes and special operations against ISIL would decimate that organization and Obama’s closest advisers who are much more cautious. As on previous occasions, our sense is that Obama’s instinctive reluctance to deploy military power will come out on top.  Complicating the efforts to build a regional coalition against ISIS is the suspicion that aircraft from Egypt and the UAE undertook airstrikes in Libya early last week. US officials are trying hard not to over-interpret this event, but fear that regional actors perceive a vacuum in US engagement and are moving to fill this unilaterally. A State Department official commented to us: “Our familiar assumption that the likes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the GCC outsourced their security to us is now in question.” As they travel to the region after the NATO session, Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel will lend their weight to ongoing efforts  to build a coalition under US leadership to confront ISIS. The non-military approach is also the one Obama is following over the deepening crisis in Ukraine. He intends to work closely with German Chancellor Merkel to toughen sanctions against Russia. A near total freeze on Russian international financial transactions is under consideration and, depending on developments in the next few days, could go into force within days. Events in the Middle East and Europe are drawing attention away from other issues, but State Department contacts speak of rising unease about Pakistan where a restive military establishment is challenging the civilian government. With the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi due to visit Washington at the end of September – a visit that has already been dogged by protocol disagreements – troubled relations between India and Pakistan is being added to the lengthening list of difficult foreign policy challenges facing the Administration. As an NSC official remarked half-seriously to us about the testy exchanges between Washington and Beijing about US surveillance flights close to the Chinese coast: “it’s almost a relief to turn to an issue where both sides are operating according to Cold War rules.”

Key Judgments

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