Encouragement and Abandonment in the Age of Obama

You’ve got to suspect that the tide is turning when the Washington Post’s editorial board titles an editorial “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy“, and concludes that  “military strength, trustworthiness as an ally, staying power in difficult corners of the world such as Afghanistan — these still matter, much as we might wish they did not.” There are no Ukranian names on the masthead – a broader realization is dawning.

The central problem with President Obama’s foreign policy (as developed with Hillary Clinton) is that the people of other countries – friends and adversaries both – have learned that Barack Obama speaks in lofty terms in encouraging others to confront dictators and foreign powers, but that he cannot be counted on in the fight. The mismatch has been a major component of the failure of the Arab Spring, the agony in Syria, and now the break-up of the Ukraine. This is schoolyard stuff where the bullies quickly learn when they must modify their behavior and when it is safe to ignore unenforced warnings. Those watching in Asia will make an informed calculation as they face Chinese expansion.

President Obama entered office with grossly outsized expectations: his 2008 Berlin speech with its “moment to give our children back their future”, his 2009 “New Beginning” Cairo speech, his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for oratory. Much of his posture was for domestic political consumption as the anti-Bush, without any specific commitments. Optimism was high, contributing to the Arab Spring concept that the solution to religious radicalism lay in large part in a transition to free societies, the assumption being that the secularists featured on CNN would overwhelm the religious conservatives much as the youth of central Europe had overwhelmed the atrophied Soviet system in the Reagan era.  Deflation was inevitable without American support at key symbolic moments.

At the start of his presidency Obama made it clear that he wasn’t bound by Bush’s commitments – abandon the Sunni tribal leaders who had helped end the Iraq civil war; re-set the relation with Russia by abandoning the Poles and Czechs who had committed to missile defense programs. If Bush supported Musharif in Pakistan, Obama cut him off. If Bush supported free trade agreements in Latin America, Obama let them languish. What other countries saw as American commitments were just “Bush commitments.” Some of that is natural for a new president, but it has become clear that foreign leaders must not assume that American commitments exist beyond administrations. This will be a lasting problem.

The pattern of encouragement and abandonment solely within the Obama era began with the Iranian crackdown on its Green Movement in 2009 and the December 2011 revolution in Tunisia. The “call us when it’s over” approach continued in Yemen, Egypt (twice), and – except for a brief interlude when we were dragged in by the Europeans – in Libya. Finally the “Assad must go” proclamation and red lines in Syria gave way to a still expanding civil war with over 140,000 killed, millions of refugees, and a magnet and training ground for thousands of foreign jihadists. The consistent pattern: good intentions; encouragement of secularists; no support; bad results.

With this lead-up, the Ukraine crisis should come as no surprise. Since the 2005 Orange Revolution represented a “seismic shift Westward”, there has been a tenuous balance between the Ukranians who lost millions to Stalin’s agricultural collectivization and the Russians who for centuries have seen Sevastopol as their key to warm water commercial and military access. (The real shame is that Crimea went to Ukraine rather than Russia when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991.) In a classic miscalculation, the US and Europe upset the balance in November by encouraging the Ukranian leadership to shift trade ties from Moscow to western Europe, dangling the eventual possibility of joining the European Union. The Russian response was predictable – a $15 billion aid package accepted by the popularly elected president, demonstrations by western-oriented Ukranians encouraged by the Europeans and the United States, escape to Russia by President Yanukovych, effective seizure of Crimea by the Russians, and a stand-off between Russia and Ukraine over the eastern protion of the country. Kissinger or Condi Rice would have understood; Obama’s team does not. After some huffing and puffing we will again have encouragement and abandonment.

The broader problem is that adversaries and allies alike knows that we are stuck leaderless for three more years. In that time we need to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat, China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, and crises yet unknown. Nature abhors a vacuum.


This week’s bonus video is a series of interviews with Democratic National Committee members addressing Hillary Clinton’s accomplishments as Secretary of State.