2011-05-27 Mission Accomplished: Obama Visit Quashes Cancellation of Military Stopover in Ireland

In the wake of Obama's visit, the Irish government has abandoned its plans to discontinue U.S military stopovers in Shannon airport.

The accepted narrative about President Obama's "historic" visit to Ireland on Monday was that it was entirely symbolic, and more to do with seeking the Irish American vote in Obama's reelection bid than with any substantive diplomatic goals. Among other ceremonial activities, the president and the first lady made a flying visit to the village of his Irish ancestors in County Offaly, and were photographed drinking Guinness in a local pub.

The visit was universally judged a success by an ecstatic Irish broadcast media, which ran all day an assortment of panegyrics from the national punditry, while scrutinizing with interest every frame of fresh footage. The president was greeted by a deferent Irish political elite, no doubt desparate to leverage the event to avert some of Ireland's fraught economic prospects.

In a speech to well over 100,000 assembled Irish people in College Green, Dublin, Obama spoke rousingly - and with an eloquence to which, in a political speaker, Irish ears are unaccustomed - of the ties of blood and destiny between Ireland and America, of hope, and of dreams, and of other vague exotica.

That is the story of America and Ireland. That’s the tale of our brawn and our blood, side by side, in making and remaking a nation, pulling it westward, pulling it skyward, moving it forward again and again and again. And that is our task again today...For all you’ve contributed to the character of the United States of America and the spirit of the world, thank you. And may God bless the eternal friendship between our two great nations.

His oratory brought forth - as no doubt intended - a wave of uncritical approval and praise. In the wake of the visit, Irish public goodwill towards the United States is very likely enjoying a significant spike.

It is at times like this that it is very easy for politicians to quietly bury conscientious and inconvenient policies which rely on a critical appraisal of America's foreign policy. This is no coincidence: occasions like this are choreographed specifically for these reasons, with explicit goals in mind. A leaked March 2010 CIA Red Cell document published by Wikileaks outlines propaganda and perception management operations conducted on European populations to ensure European government support for the American war effort. It notes:

Public Apathy Enables Leaders To Ignore Voters. . . (C//NF)
The Afghanistan mission’s low public salience has allowed French and German leaders to disregard popular opposition and steadily increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Berlin and Paris currently maintain the third and fourth highest ISAF troop levels, despite the opposition of 80 percent of German and French respondents to increased ISAF deployments, according to INR polling in fall 2009.

After noting that this apathy is endangered for a variety of reasons, when populations become more engaged and critical, the paper begins to consider methods for pacifying European populations so as to avert pressure on European governments over support for the ISAF war effort. One method considered central is the use of President Obama's celebrity in Europe. In particular, poll data are cited that demonstrate that voters could be easily swayed in their support of a particular policy by the mere suggestion of Obama's approval or disapproval.

Appeals by President Obama and Afghan Women Might Gain Traction (C//NF)
The confidence of the French and German publics in President Obama’s ability to handle foreign affairs in general and Afghanistan in particular suggest that they would be receptive to his direct affirmation of their importance to the ISAF mission—and sensitive to direct expressions of disappointment in allies who do not help... [A] poll also found that, when respondents were reminded that President Obama himself had asked for increased deployments to Afghanistan, their support for granting this request increased dramatically, from 4 to 15 percent among French respondents and from 7 to 13 percent among Germans. The total percentages may be small but they suggest significant sensitivity to disappointing a president seen as broadly in sync with European concerns. (C//NF)

The suggestion is that Obama's celebrity profile in Europe is such that his praise - or lack thereof - of a particular European public might influence support for American foreign policy interests in Central Asia, thereby freeing complicit European governments from any pressures which might 'lead them astray.'

When the father of our country, George Washington, needed an army, it was the fierce fighting of your sons that caused the British official to lament, “We have lost America through the Irish.” (Applause.) And as George Washington said himself, “When our friendless standards were first unfurled, who were the strangers who first mustered around our staff? And when it reeled in the light, who more brilliantly sustained it than Erin’s generous sons?” (Obama's Speech)

An under-reported piece of information came to light in a Monday article in The Irish Examiner, entitled "Obama praises 'extraordinary Irish'." The article details a short meeting between Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny and U.S. President Barack Obama during the visit.

Mr Kenny said the discussions focused on the economic situation in Ireland including the banking crisis and the efforts to bring country’s budget under control and also US immigration policy. The Taoiseach also assured the President that Shannon Airport – a stopover point for US military aircraft moving to Afghanistan – would remain open. Mr Kenny described it as a “no-change” policy.

This announcement remains hitherto unreported elsewhere in any of the country's establishment press, such was the noise generated by the visit. The announcement heralds an apparent reversal on a joint pledge by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition government, which formed after an election in February. The coalition's Joint Programme for Government paper, which was voted upon in early March by the membership of both parties, contains on page 57 a pledge to the following effect:

We will enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law.

When questioned at a conference on the Joint Programme by a delegate from the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, the Labour head and new Deputy Prime Minister, Eamonn Gilmore, clarified that the pledge was a commitment to end U.S. military stopovers in Shannon Airport, a policy goal which had been consistently (and as recently as January this year) advocated by the Labour party whilst in opposition. The exchange was reported in a Press Statement circulated to the PANA mailing list:

PANA Chair, Roger Cole, a delegate to the Conference, asked for clarification of this statement in the Programme for Government. He pointed out that a key part of international law governing the behaviour of Neutral States is the Hague Convention of 1907 which prohibits the use of a neutral state's territory to prosecute a war. Switzerland quotes the Hague Convention to explain why no US planes land at Zurich Airport on their way to and from their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Mr. Cole asked: "Does this mean the termination of the use of Shannon Airport by US troops in these permanent ongoing wars?" citing Afghanistan and Iraq. Eamon Gilmore in his closing speech to the Conference, replied to Roger Cole's call for clarification. The Labour Party Leader stated that: "Yes, Roger Cole has pointed out an area where there is a difference" and "that it may be hard to believe" but that the statement in the Programme for the Government "does mean what is says".

The announcement Monday by Taoiseach Enda Kenny that Shannon is a "no-change" policy is therefore a stark reversal of a joint commitment of the new Irish government, and a complete alignment with the "no-change policy" of the previous Fianna Fáil government.

Irish people swept away by the sententious prose of Obama's speechwriter will find it difficult to impute such explicitly malign objectives to his visit, but a survey of the history of secret diplomatic dealings between the Irish and American governments makes the suspicion far more difficult to avoid.

The use of Shannon airport as a stopover site for U.S. military flights to and from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was granted by the Fianna Fáil government in 2003. (Please see here for a short summary of the issue.) The move was widely opposed among the Irish public as it was seen to violate a tradition of Irish neutrality in international conflicts. Irish neutrality in the last decade, however, thanks to the efforts of the Fianna Fáil government, has never been much more than a polite fiction.

In response to a number of parliamentary questions in 2003, Tom Kitt, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated rather ambiguously to the Dáil that Ireland remained "non-aligned" or neutral, and uninvolved in any military alliances. However, a recently published State Department cable in Aftenposten reveals that as recently as 2009 the Obama administration considered Ireland to be an "Allied or Partner" state in the ongoing NATO conflict in Afghanistan. In the runup to the announcement of Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan, Ireland was named as one of the states that could afford to "do more" to aid with that conflict. A campaign to elicit demanded levels of support was suggested:

13. (S/NF) Other Allies and partners, who have the physical and financial capability to do more now, possibly as much as a third more (albeit with a smaller total contribution than those listed above), include Bulgaria (troops), Czech Republic (troops), Greece (troops), Lithuania (troops), Luxembourg (civil experts and/or money), Portugal (troops and/or money), Slovakia (troops), Slovenia (money), European Union (police and/or rule of law trainers), Austria (troops and/or money), Brazil (money), Egypt (civil assistance), India (civil assistance), Ireland (troops and/or money).
14. (S/NF) The Presidents upcoming announcement is an opportunity to extract the maximum momentum for our mission in ISAF, and we should begin coordinated high-level engagement to ensure there are a number of nations ready to announce their increases at the same time.

The subversion of the Irish government's popular mandate has been a consistent diplomatic goal of the United States over the last decade. A further State department cable notes with approval the Irish government's defiance of popular opinion to maintain support for America's war effort.

U.S. military access to Shannon Airport in western Ireland is among the most tangible benefits of traditionally strong U.S.-Irish relations. For the United States, geography makes Shannon a key transit point for military flights and military contract flights carrying personnel and materiel to Iraq and the Middle East/Gulf theater in the global war on terror, as well as to Europe and Africa.... For Ireland, U.S. military transits not only demonstrate bilateral cooperation in support of U.S. objectives in the Gulf/Middle East, but also generate
significant revenue for Shannon Airport and the regional economy.... The Irish Government consistently has acted to ensure continued U.S. military transits at Shannon in the face of public criticism.

It has at times seemed agreeable to the U.S. State Department to induce the Irish government to lie to its public in defence of American interests. Fears that extraordinary rendition flights were occurring through Shannon airport were categorically denied in a 2006 speech to the Dáil by then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, who cited strong assurances to the contrary from the American diplomatic mission in Ireland. A 2007 State Department cable, however, reveals otherwise. He had on this occasion no such assurances from the diplomatic post, and in fact appeared certain that planes involved in rendition flights had landed in Shannon, whether they were carrying prisoners or not. He further suggested token measures that might offer him political cover should knowledge of rendition flights surface in the future. The cable ends by noting with approval how the Irish press's failure to report on a Foreign Affairs Committee hearing had effectively put this matter to bed.

Ahern noted that he had "put his neck on the chopping block" and would pay a severe political price if it ever turned out that rendition flights had entered Ireland or if one was discovered in the future. He stated that he "could use a little more information" about the flights, musing that it might not be a bad idea to allow the random inspection of a few planes to proceed, which would provide cover if a rendition flight ever surfaced. He seemed quite convinced that at least three flights involving renditions had refueled at Shannon Airport before or after conducting renditions elsewhere.
(C) Comment: While Ahern's public stance on extraordinary renditions is rock-solid, his musings during the meeting seemed less assured. This was the only issue during the meeting that agitated him; he spent considerable time dwelling on it. Ahern seemed to be fishing for renewed assurances from the Ambassador that no rendition flights have transited Ireland, or would transit in the future. Highlighting the recent attention drawn to renditions by the IHRC report, later the same day the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on the matter. The hearing, attended by POLOFFs, generally confirmed the Government's view that there is no evidence that rendition flights have transited Ireland. The hearing, which was barely reported by the press, failed to achieve any traction for critics of American policy.

Lest it be assumed that the Fianna Fáil government was the exclusive focus of these efforts, here is a suggestion from Ahern that the Ambassador meet with Fine Gael leadership to "explain the U.S. position." "Fine Gael leadership," in 2007, meant Enda Kenny. Enda Kenny is now the Taoiseach of Ireland.

Ahern declared that the IHRC report contained no new information, but warned that opposition parties Fine Gael and Labour could be expected to continue to raise the issue from time to time in efforts to politically embarrass the Fianna Fail-run Government... Ahern said that a public response by the Embassy would not be useful, but suggested that the Ambassador personally engage Fine Gael leadership to explain the U.S. position.

The reversal of the Irish government's policy on the Shannon military stopover is unlikely to receive much opposition from the Irish public, such now will be the intensity of the collective desire to live up to the president's praise of Ireland and its "special relationship" with the United States. But it is very difficult to suppress the suspicion that President Obama's 'merely symbolic' visit on Monday was an expertly managed PR strategy designed to kill several birds with the one stone. In a matter of a few hours, a promise from the newly elected government of Ireland to its people, hard won over a decade of tireless campaigning by the anti-war movement, sank without a trace beneath the Sargasso Sea of American foreign policy. Mission accomplished.

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