Monday, May 30, 2011

When Kenny met Obama

President Barack Obama and Taoiseach Enda Kenny have met twice in recent months. The first occasion was on St Patrick's day when Kenny was invited to the White House upon which he held a one hour meeting with the President before attending several receptions in Washington DC. The second occasion was last Monday when President Obama came to Ireland. Obama spent less than twelve hours in Ireland where again he held a private meeting with Kenny before he departed for the UK. So I got to thinking, what do these two men have in common and could they possibly relate to each others job?

Barack Obama and Enda Kenny are both heads of government and political leaders of nations. But they are two very very different nations. America is a nation of over 300 million people. It is the biggest economy in the world and it has the most powerful military in history of which Barack Obama is the commander in chief. Ireland is a nation of 4 million people. Our economy reflects our size with a GDP of $200 billion. We are not a member of NATO and unlike other smaller US allies like Georgia or Israel, we are not of any geopolitical significance. I am not trying to be cynical here. I think the close relationship between Ireland and the US is entirely valid given the deep connections between the two nations through trade, immigration and the Northern Ireland peace process but I am trying to explore how the two men, despite having the same job live entirely different lives and are faces on a daily basis with choices of a completely different nature.

Let us compare the the 17th of March last when the two men met in Washington DC and see how that day was different for each of them. According to the official White House schedule at 10am on March the 17th President Obama received his daily briefing led by his Chief of Staff Bill Daley. At that particular briefing I suspect the issue of Libya would have dominated. President Obama would have received an update from his senior military advisers on the latest reports of Col Gaddafi's troop movements. On March 17th Col Gaddafi's troops had fought back against the uprising and were surrounding the Eastern city of Benghazi which was and still is the rebel headquarters. That morning President Obama was faced with a monumental decision. Should America back British and French calls for military intervention which would take the form of a no fly zone. Obama was naturally reluctant to involve the US in a third Middle Eastern war with all the dangers of mission creep that come with it. On the other hand if Obama were to fail to act the rebellion would be crushed, thousands would be murdered by a vengeful Gadaffi and the Arab Spring, seen my many as the most hopeful sign of democracy in the Arab Word ever would come to an end. That morning I posted my thoughts on the decision facing Obama. There is no question the President was faced with an enormous dillemma but a decision could not be made at the briefing because at 10:30am the President had to ask his advisers to leave the Oval Office so that he could meet with Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The decision of whether or not to allow the Arab revolts to continue, a decision which could have lasting repercussions for the 21st century would have to wait. Obamas final comment of the briefing would no doubt have been, that in order to discuss the situation further, a meeting of the national security council should be convened for some time after lunch, when the President is finished dealing with the Irish.

As Enda Kenny and Barack Obama chatted in the Oval Office on St Patrick's Day, rebels in Benghazi were hours away from being slaughtered. President Obama had an immediate decision to make.

At 10:30 am Enda Kenny (who already had breakfast with Vice President Joe biden) entered the Oval Office for a half hour meeting with President Obama. The Global economic recovery was naturally the main topic of conversation, but Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Immigration reform and Obama coming to Ireland would also have been discussed. At 11:00 am the two men emerged from the Oval office and at 11:05 a joint press conference was held. Events in Libya at this stage were moving extremely quickly. I assume that in the few minutes after the meeting but before the press conference President Obama would have received an update, perhaps a subtle whisper in the ear from a senior military advisor, on the situation on the outskirts of Benghazi. However whn the cameras started rolling, the President had to put Libya out of his mind because for now it was all about Ireland. Watch below.

After the Press Conference the President no doubt returned to The Situation Room to view satellite images of just how precarious the situation was in East Libya. Then at midday it was off to meet with Enda Kenny again and other notable Irish and Irish Americans for the St Patricks day lunch, this time on Capitol Hill. This remarkable picture below shows President Obama and Enda Kenny descending the steps of Capitol Hill after their lunch, alongside newly elected Speaker of the House of representatives John Boehner (left) and Republican Congressman and Irish American Peter King. King is also the House chairman of the Homeland Security and Intelligence committees.

This photo is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least because Boehner and King are two of Obamas most relentless critics. During the Northern Irish troubles Peter King was an active and unapologetic supporter of the Provisional IRA. So much so that when in 1985 he was announced as the Grand Marshal of the St Patrick's Day Parade in New York, the then Taoiseach, the recently deceased Garret Fitzgerald, whom President Obama last week paid tribute to, refused to attend the parade upon invitation. Even weirder, King defended, and may even had knowledge of IRA attempts to import arms from Col Gadaffi's Libya due to his very close personal relationship with Michael McKevitt, the mastermind of the Libya arms deals, founder of the Real IRA and mass murderer of the citizens of Omagh. Surely, the irony could not have been lost on Obama, Kenny and King that they were chatting so casually on the very day that President Obama decided to take military action against Col Gadaffi, an event which will no doubt lead to his downfall in the very near future. Did the men even perhaps discuss the subject?

After the lunch Enda Kenny made his way to the Washington DC offices of the Bloomberg Business Channel where he was interviewed about the Irish economic situation. President Obama meanwhile returned to the White House to discuss the situation in Libya with his National Security Team, not before he made a statement on the Nuclear crisis in Japan which appeared to be worsening a mere six days after the devastating tsunami. It was at this meeting, which would have been attended by Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, CIA director Leon Penetta and National Security Advisor Tom Donilson that it was decided that Col Gadaffi's days are numbered, that it is US policy to continue to encourage the Arab Spring regardless of the instability it might create. While Kenny was off talking to Bloomberg attempting to assure international markets that Irish economy was stabilising, the White House was contemplating and acting upon events that may shape human history for centuries.

At seven PM, all returned to the White House for a shin dig. Glen Hansard sang, Eunice Kennedy read poems, Barack Obama talked, Joe Biden toasted and Enda Kenny philosophised. It lasted until the early hours. But there was one more significant event that day. Some time in the afternoon, perhaps during the NSC meeting, or perhaps even during the the St Patrick's day celebrations that night, President Obama slipped down to the Situation Room. He probably told the Taoiseach that he wouldn't be long. While in the situation room President Obama order an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Predator Drone to attack suspected Taliban militants who had gathered in a place called Datta Khel in North Waziristan (Pakistan) not far from the Afghan border. The strike killed 48 people and wounded another 50. It turned out to one of the more controversial UAV strikes in Pakistan not least because of the number killed but also because there were reports that a mediation was taking place between Pakistani police, tribal elders and the Taliban. It is known that Pakistani Policemen were killed in the strike. The Punjab Assembly unanimously passed a resolution condemning the strike and demanded that the national government take a clearer stance on the issue of drone strikes. I don't know when exactly President Obama ordered the strike. But the feeling I get when I imagine the President chatting with Enda Kenny, or perhaps his wife Fionnula, before excusing himself to head off to the Situation room to authorise an air strike in Pakistan, is a mixture of awe and eeriness.

All in all, it was an eventful day for both Enda Kenny and President Obama. But where as for the Taoiseach it was one of the biggest days of his political life, for the President it was just another day at the office. And where as the Taoiseach was fighting for issues of vital national importance to me and my country, Kennys issues of concern seem minute and trivial compared to the issues faced by the leader of the Free World on a daily basis. Let us not forget also that between these two meetings on the 17th of March and 23 of May, President Obama had perhaps his greatest day in office. I am of course referring to the slaying of Bin Laden.

On May 23 President Obama visited Ireland. We all know what he did. We have all seen the pictures from the Phoenix Park, College Green and Moneygall. But it might surprise people to know that even while travelling abroad, even in a place like Moneygall, President Obama has the ability to exercise his role of Commander in Chief. While in Ireland President Obama authorised a UAV Drone Strike on Pakistan. Again the target was North Waziristan. This time seven suspected militants were killed. Once again I don't know when the order was given , but it could have been anytime. He could have done it from the "Beast", from "Marine One" or even from Ollie Hayes Bar in Moneygall. But as on the St Patrick's Day, the Obama experience was very different than the Kenny one. While Obama was shaking hands, kissing babies and wooing the Irish, there were many wider ideas on his mind.

While in Ireland, President Obama authorised a UAV Drone strike on Pakistan.

On the evening of the 23rd of March President Obamas team announced that he would not be spending the night in Ireland as planned. Air Force One would be flying to London that night in order to avoid any future delay that might arise because of the Icelandic ash cloud. Hmm... I don't think so. The night of the 23rd saw the heaviest bombing of Libya since the conflict began. I have no doubt that the real reason Obama left early was to oversee that nights work. It would have taken the form of a three way video conference over the Irish Sea between Air Force One, the Pentagon and NATO headquarters in Brussels. What other example could posibly compare in more stark terms the radically different nature of leading a neutral nation of Ireland to that of the United States of America.

This post is not about belittling Ireland, Enda Kenny or the office of the Taoiseach. But it is about perspective. Ireland got itself into this economic mess. We will have to get ourselves out of it. To those who say that Enda Kenny should have lectured President Obama on Timothy Geithner's apparent hostile stance toward the IMF/EU bail out I say, lets get real. Enda Kenny is responsible for the economic recovery of Ireland. Barack Obama is responsible for the security of the western world.


Anonymous said...

Hey, Ted,
Interesting comments; you obviously give this careful thought. Your acknowledgment of the weight on Obama's shoulders is too rarely made, by anyone.
Are we required to wear green ties when meeting with Irish officials?

Ted Leddy said...

Thanks Jenny

I generally don't like criticising the President without having some regard for the responsabilities that he has. That should go for former President Bush too in my opinion.

As for the post, I am fascinated by the Presidency. I think it is impossible to imagine the magnitude of that particular job.

As for the green ties, good spot. It almost seems mandatory. They will be dying their hair green next.