PARIS -- One of the most common questions that I'm asked these days is whether U.S. President Barack Obama is a brilliant bamboozler or just a bumbler. Some people are utterly convinced that the chaos in the Middle East -- with America waging a yearlong bombing campaign against the Islamic State, only to be bailed out by the Russians -- was actually a brilliant ploy by Obama to encourage mayhem in pursuit of victorious ends.
How can one tell if this is really the case? Well, let's hear from Obama himself.
"When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin," Obama said in an interview that aired recently on the CBS show "60 Minutes." "Syria was Russia's only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they've had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally."
All right, so we're supposed to believe that Obama is a strategic genius and that everything is unfolding according to plan. Except that it's possible to confuse the heck out of your adversary and still not beat him.
It would be easier to swallow Obama's advocacy of his own brilliance if Europe and the West weren't going to be supporting Ukraine for the foreseeable future, with many of the anticipated business gains for the West yet to materialize. Worse, Ukraine has now lost its resource-rich region of Crimea to Russia as a result of the shake-up.
In the Middle East, Russia has positioned itself as the can-do nation capable of cleaning up America's mess, which all started with U.S. support for the so-called "Syrian rebels" -- which Obama admits in the same interview to being an experiment gone wrong. Yet the Washington Post reported last week that U.S. officials have a new plan to arm unspecified Arab groups inside Syria. "Arab groups" are presumably the new "Syrian rebels." Hopefully the Russians will wipe out the Islamic State before the Obama gang runs out of synonyms.
Legendary military strategist Carl von Clausewitz analyzed the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century and developed theories on the use of deliberate tactical confusion in warfare. Such strategy can also be practiced inadvertently by incompetents, with unfortunate results. One can only tell the difference in retrospect.
Members of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's administration were expert practitioners of controlled chaos. The U.S. government discreetly facilitated the sale of weapons to Iran to secure the release of American hostages held in Iran, and used money from the weapons sales to fund the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua. The Reagan administration also quietly backed the local Islamic fighters against the Soviets in Afghanistan. While never losing that nice-guy demeanor, Reagan famously told a joke about bombing the Soviet Union while standing in front of a live microphone.
Following the bouncing ball wasn't easy with Reagan. His objective was the defeat of communism worldwide, and it was fundamentally achieved.
Several French presidents have also been quintessential practitioners of tactical fog of war. Socialist President Francois Mitterrand had everyone believing that he was a communist sympathizer -- until he did a volte-face toward a Reaganesque economic plan while also dropping a list of communist spies into Reagan's lap. Also under Mitterrand, while overtly supporting Britain during the Falklands War, a French team working for Dassault -- "a company 51 percent owned by the French government" -- was also working for Argentina, according to the BBC. Intelligence collection and influence behind enemy lines, or hedging bets on the outcome of a conflict? Either way, it worked out for France.
Next came French President Jacques Chirac, who was so successful at practicing tactical confusion that some people probably believed this center-right leader was a leftist. While reducing nuclear weapons, he ramped up nuclear testing in French Polynesia. There was even confusion over Chirac's activity level -- or "fog of bore," as I like to call it -- since he seemed outwardly laid back while discreetly spearheading effective underground diplomacy. Arguably, "FranÃ§afrique" -- the term for the relationship between France and its former African colonies -- was quietly nurtured under Chirac's mandate. The outcome of that strategy remains palpable through the success of French multinationals in the region.
History has ultimately judged all of these leaders' strategies. So regardless of how the White House may try to spin recent events, it's still too early to tell whether Obama is a Machiavellian fog machine or just suffering from brain fog.