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September 1, 2014 / Sandy Asher


A scant six months ago, in a post called “Feckless or Reckless?” I defended President Obama’s foreign policy against critics who described it as clueless, weak, and vacillating. His timidity in dealing with Benghazi, Iran, and Syria, they argued, made it easier for Putin to lunge for parts of Ukraine. They took Obama to task for entering into negotiations with Iran over halting its production of weapons-grade uranium, and complained about his refusal to send military aid to Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime. They excoriated Obama for lacking a coherent overarching foreign policy, some kind of blueprint that would outline a general response to international turmoil.

Reality has not interfered with the critical onslaught. It continues despite the lack of a single shred of evidence that Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has anything at all to do with American policies in the Middle East; likewise, that arming Syrian rebels (whose best fighters are extremists) would have toppled Assad’s forces. It continues to ignore our incredibly poor record in those places where we did intervene militarily– for decades–Iraq and Afghanistan.

The usual suspects, the likes of Senators McCain and Graham and Charles Krauthammer, have now been joined by liberal critics, among them Senator Diane Feinstein. A recent USA TODAY/Pew poll found “Americans increasingly open to a larger U.S. role to solve problems around the world.” (Susan Page, “More Want U.S. to Flex Muscle,” USA Today, August 29-September 1, 2014). Furthermore, according to this poll, 54% of Americans think Obama is not tough enough. His foreign policy approval ratings (37%) are now below those for his domestic policy (39%).

It’s getting lonely out here, defending the President’s decisions, or lack of same, but I still believe they deserve defending.

Since I last wrote on the subject, there have been hostilities between Hamas and Israel, a massive expansion of the extremist ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), also known as IS and ISIL, and more aggression and likely annexations by Russia of those parts of eastern Ukraine considered the future Novorossiya (New Russia). The failure of peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, horrendous pictures of ISIS cold-bloodedly exterminating enemy soldiers and minority populations and beheading an American journalist, and Russia’s overt lies about what it is doing to Ukraine give a sense of a world spinning out of control.

The hope is that somehow the chaos will be arrested if the United States toughens up its foreign policy. At the same time, paradoxically, those urging stronger, immediate intervention do not want the U.S. to resume its role as the world’s police force. Indeed, they agree with Obama that there should not be large numbers of our troops on the ground and no military action should be taken against Russia.

Given these mutually agreed upon limits, what do critics suggest the president do to arrest the deteriorating situations?

In the battle with ISIS, they want to extend the air attacks from Iraq into Syria, while acknowledging that air power alone won’t be decisive. They want, as does Obama, to build a military coalition among countries and regions most threatened by ISIS. For what it’s worth, unlike al-Qaeda, for ISIS the main enemy is not the United States and Europe but other infidel Islamic states such as Syria. Yet politicians are joining Congressman Peter King in bringing back the Vietnam War mantra: If we don’t stop them there, we will have to fight them here.

Who are the choices as troop providers? The best one is moderate Syrian rebels followed by Kurds in Iraq. But there’s no way to assure arms sent to moderates won’t fall into the hands of extremists, and going after ISIS in Syria will certainly strengthen the butcher Assad who has offered to ally with us in this fight against extremists. There are insufficient numbers of Kurdish forces (pesh merga) to win the fight even with exponentially increased American air support. Some Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militia are willing to fight, the very same groups that killed many Americans during the occupation of Iraq. The regular Iraqi army fled in disarray when ISIS attacked in western Iraq, despite numerical and weapons superiority. In their wake, the Iraqis left behind millions of dollars of American equipment, which we are now trying to destroy.

What about Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Iran? There are lots of problems inherent in turning these countries into a united military coalition. Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded the rebel groups they are now asked to fight; Turkey has served as a transit route for ISIS recruits. The ongoing quarrels these states have with one another argue against their coming together as a united force on the battlefield.

In the conflict with Russia, the proposal is to give more arms to Ukrainians (knowing they will not be able to defeat the Russians). Also, to expand the economic sanctions now in force, a goal which requires us to overcome our European allies’ resistance to accepting a complete cut-off of natural gas by the Russians and their reluctance to renege on already signed, profitable military contracts with Russia.

What kind of more cohesive and visionary foreign policy do critics suggest the president pursue? The fact is they are better at saying what he shouldn’t do than what he should. Don’t draw lines in the sand and then not carry out your threat when a line is crossed. Don’t publicly announce that “We don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with ISIS. Don’t make baseball analogies about how we can win the game without hitting home runs. Don’t come across as dispassionate or detached when addressing emotion-inducing foreign events.

Obama would be wise to pay some attention to these criticisms. Perception matters. On the other hand, we should not expect Obama to “feel our pain” or become the instant Decider.

Obama bashers do not want to create a new doctrine that would respond to aggression everywhere as if they were Truman confronting “world communism” in the the late 1940s. Nor do they seem keen on a Marshall Plan or the preemptive wars of Bush II for establishing democracy throughout the Middle East. The only general foreign policy proposal emanating from the group that I have found suggests that Obama “speak loudly and carry a big stick.”

Prediction usually turns out to be a historian’s worst nightmare, but here it comes anyway. During the course of the next two or three weeks, after attending a NATO summit in Wales; meeting with leaders in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania; and convening a Security Council meeting in New York to discuss ISIS threats, the president will announce that the following measures have been or will be undertaken – partly to deflect conservative critics, partly to appease Democrats worried about mid-term Senate elections, partly to regain public support, and partly because none of these steps will get us into another endless war. He will come out for

1.additional military aid and strongly worded commitments to our East European and Baltic NATO allies for protection against Russian aggression there (which is not going to happen); increase in military equipment shipments to Ukraine;
3.more economic sanctions against Russia (that won’t work short term);
4.the bombing of ISIS targets inside of Syria (that can contain but not defeat ISIS aggression).

The response of critics at best will be that this is a good start followed by the “buts:” but this is too little, too late; but we need to do more of items 1-4; but this does not address the overall problem of an insufficiently muscular and tough foreign policy.

Everyone likes a dramatic, instantaneous win – a two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the World Series. That’s not the way foreign policy works. It deals with multiple leagues all playing by different rules. We need to understand that the final outcome is not ours to control, at least not completely, and remember the internal forces at work in ISIS and Russia that over time can play out to their disadvantage.

There can be no hitting one out of the ballpark for us in these situations. BUT: Obama’s foreign policy, faults notwithstanding, has kept us in the game with a chance to win.


One Comment

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  1. It’s always easy to be a critic on a certain aspect of foreign policy, but the President has to deal with many intersecting and conflicting situations.

    Thanks for a thoughtful critique that recognizes the difficulty of Obama’s task. He has had a few mis-steps, but no blunders with potentially catastrophic consequences–unlike his predecessor, whose policies, especially in Iraq, have created an environment in which ISIS has been able to thrive.

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