In an interesting piece in the New York Times, David Sanger has written that President Obama’s foreign policy of caution is being tested to its limits.
He begins, “For five years, President Obama has consciously recast how America engages with the world’s toughest customers. But with Russia poised to annex Crimea after Sunday’s referendum, with a mounting threat to the rest of Ukraine and with the carnage in Syria accelerating, Mr. Obama’s strategy is now under greater stress than at any time in his presidency. In his first term, the White House described its approach as the ‘light footprint’: ‘Dumb wars’ of occupation — how Mr. Obama once termed Iraq — were out. Drone strikes, cyberattacks and Special Operations raids that made use of America’s technological superiority were the new, quick-and-dirty expression of military and covert power. When he did agree to have American forces join the bombing of Libya in 2011, Mr. Obama insisted that NATO and Arab states ‘put skin in the game,’ a phrase he vastly prefers to ‘leading from behind.’ As he learned to play the long game, the Treasury Department became Mr. Obama’s favourite noncombatant command. It refined the art of the economic squeeze on Iran, eventually forcing the mullahs to the negotiating table”.
Sanger goes on to write however that “so far those tools — or even the threat of them — have proved frustratingly ineffective in the most recent crises. Sanctions and modest help to the Syrian rebels have failed to halt the slaughter; if anything, the killing worsened as negotiations dragged on. The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs. In short, America’s adversaries are testing the limits of America’s post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan moment. “We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas,” said one of Mr. Obama’s former senior national security aides, who would not speak on the record about his ex-boss”.
Aside from the Obama’s total lack of engagement in Syria, which despite some potential benefits, will come back to haunt him Sanger’s point is too broad. With regard to the ADIZ, short of going to war with China, America has acted and warned China in a not so subtle way that this behaviour is not going to be tolerated.
Sanger goes on to write that “Obama acknowledges, at least in private, that he is managing an era of American retrenchment. History suggests that such eras — akin to what the United States went through after the two world wars and Vietnam — often look like weakness to the rest of the world. His former national security adviser Thomas Donilon seemed to acknowledge the critical nature of the moment on Sunday when he said on “Face the Nation” that what Mr. Obama was facing was “a challenge to the post-Cold War order in Europe, an order that we have a lot to do with.” But while Mr. Donilon expressed confidence that over time the United States holds powerful tools against Russia and other nations, in the short term challengers like Mr. Putin have the advantage on the ground”.
He continues, “the testing of administration policy at a time the president is politically weakened at home has sparked a critical question. Is it Mr. Obama’s deliberative, pick-your-battles approach that is encouraging adversaries to press the limits? Or is this simply a time when exercising leverage over countries that defy American will or the international order is trickier than ever, and when the domestic pressure to stay out of international conflicts is obvious to overseas friends and foes alike? It is almost certainly some combination of the two. But the most stinging critique of Mr. Obama is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of nonintervention. Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state, argues that five years of signaling that others need to step in, of stressing that America can no longer police the world, have taken a toll”.
Sangers acknowledgement that “the international order is trickier than ever” is a fair point and must be taken into account in assessing Obama’s foreign policy choices. For example, people rightly deride Obama for doing little in Syria but the chance of a once in a generation deal with Iran, however slight, is worth the time and effort even if it means inaction in Syria. The ever complicated relationship with China is made even more complicated as a result of the endlessly aggressive actions China is taking in Asia but at the same time China is needed, not just for talks with Iran but for a host of other issues.
He goes on to elobrate on Condoleezza Rice’s point, “Rice was enthusiastic about Mr. Obama’s election in 2008, and talked to him frequently during the transition. But she argues now that many of his decisions — such as abandoning a plan to strike Syria for its use of chemical weapons and proposing a defense budget that shrinks the Army to its lowest levels since World War II just as the Chinese announced a 12 percent increase in their military spending — send clear signals”. Yet, this overlooks the simple fact that money is not everything when it comes to miliary spending. China’s armed forces have a plethora of embedded problems and spending more money will not neccessarily make China a more powerful enemy.
Sanger adds that “Obama and his senior staff members tell a very different story — one in which the president has capitalised on the benefits of getting out of Iraq, and almost out of Afghanistan, to employ more subtle, smarter tools of national power. The ‘pivot to Asia,’ which has been slow to materialise, was supposed to be emblematic of a new combination of soft and hard power; it was as much about building trade relationships as making it clear to the Chinese leadership that America has no intention of ceding the East and South China Seas as areas where Beijing could expect to become the sole power. The latest budget invests more in drones and cyber and Special Operations forces, and pares back on conventional troops and the equipment for long land wars. ‘If we are constantly overextending ourselves, chasing every crisis, we’re not going to be able to play the long game required for American primacy,’ said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. Mr. Obama insists he is sending the right signals: He argued to Jeffrey Goldberg in Bloomberg View recently that there are “35,000 U.S. military personnel” in the Middle East who are constantly training ‘under the direction of a president who already has shown himself willing to take military action in the past.’ But the president also made the case that Washington is awash with muscle-flexing by those who have not learned the lessons of the past decade. If he had sent troops to Syria, Mr. Obama argued, ‘there was the possibility that we would have made the situation worse rather than better on the ground, precisely because of U.S. involvement, which would have meant that we would have had the third or, if you count Libya, the fourth war in a Muslim country in the span of a decade.'”
Sanger then writes that “Egypt is a good example. Despite threats by the United States to cut off several billion dollars in support for the Egyptian military if its generals continued their brutal crackdowns, protesters are still in jail, and the coming presidential election seems all but certain to be manipulated. Asked why the generals are so cavalier about losing American aid, a senior American diplomat who deals often with the Egyptians has an easy answer: ‘We don’t give them enough that they really care.’ Russia is the next test. Ukraine’s best defense today against a Russian incursion beyond Crimea is not its army or its allies, but the markets. The ruble has already fallen 10 percent this year, Russia’s exports are down, and a full-scale invasion would most likely force even the most reluctant Europeans to enact real sanctions. Among them is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who changed her tone the other day and warned that if Russia ‘continues on its course,’ the result will be ‘massive damage to Russia, both economically and politically.’ Mr. Obama’s critics, seeing political advantage, argue that the world smells weakness”.
The problem with these examples is that, firstly with the case of Egypt, Sisi did America a favour in removing Morsi but this is naturally not a long term solution either for Egypt or America. If it is a choice between Morsi and the generals realism dictates that the generals should recieve backing. Sanger then cites the case of Ukraine and Russia. He is right that the economic route is the most painful for Putin but American sanctions will have little effect. His quoting of Merkel is unhelpful, she, and the rest of Europe are mired not only in a Kantian bubble but are unable to formulate a real policy of deterrence. America can only do so much economically to Russia, if Europe wants to stand firm on Putin, Germany must act and not just speak.
He ends the piece, “In fact, said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Republican who worked for both the first President George Bush and his son, to put the blame on Mr. Obama is to ‘ignore history, geography and politics, and lets both the Europeans and the Ukrainians themselves off the hook.'”