OBAMA’S POLICY IS PUT TO THE TEST AS CRISES CHALLENGE CAUTION
|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, writes nytimes.com. |
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 favorite noncombatant command. It refined the art of the economic squeeze on Iran, eventually forcing the mullahs to the negotiating table.
But 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.
"No one is arguing for military action, for bringing back George Bush’s chest-thumping,” the former aide said. At the same time, he said, the president’s oft-repeated lines that those who violate international norms will be "isolated” and "pay a heavy price” over the long term have sounded "more like predictions over time, and less like imminent threats.”
Mr. 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.
Not surprisingly, 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.
"There was a view that if the United States pulled back and stopped ‘imposing’ and ‘insisting’ in the world, the vacuum would be filled by good things: the international community and the allies,” Ms. Rice said in a recent phone conversation from Stanford University, where she teaches.
"But what has filled that space has been brutal dictators; extremist forces, especially in Iraq and Syria; and nationalism.”
Ms. 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.
"Asia’s in an all-out nationalist mood that’s the real cost of American withdrawal,” she argues.
That perception, right or wrong, is shared by some traditional allies. The Israelis worry there is diminished interest in keeping American aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, and fear that if a nuclear deal is struck with Iran, Washington will no longer anchor an alliance to contain Tehran.
The Saudis are talking anew about the possibility of needing a nuclear deterrent of their own.
Mr. Obama and his senior staff members tell a very different story — one in which the president has capitalized 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 materialize, 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.”
Still, some senior officials who left the White House after the first term concede — when assured of anonymity — that Mr. Obama erred in failing to have a plan to
back up his declaration that President Bashar al-Assad had to leave office. And Arab leaders argue that Mr. Obama’s last-minute decision to pull back from the missile strike on Syria will embolden the Iranians as they decide how much, if any, of their nuclear program to give up.
Foreign leaders say they see America’s unwillingness to act as the inevitable backlash of too many years at war. "In the past decade we’ve seen the consequences and the limits of taking action,” said David Miliband, the former British foreign secretary who now runs the International Rescue Committee, as he described his organization’s efforts to help an overwhelming influx of refugees over Syria’s borders.
"Here we’re seeing the consequences and limits of inaction.”
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. "There are no consequences when you defy what Obama’s telling you to do,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, who is one of the president’s harshest critics.
Mr. Rhodes dismisses such arguments. "There’s a lot of magical thinking going on that if we had gone to war in Syria, Vladimir Putin would have never gone into Crimea,” he said. "That is fantasy. The United States went into Iraq, and it never stopped Putin from going into Georgia.”
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.”
But the multiple crises on Mr. Obama’s plate will shape the world’s view of American power. "You can bet the Chinese are watching our every move” to see if the United States imposes biting sanctions and if the Russians figure out how to evade them, one senior intelligence official said. "They want to know where the limits are, or if there are any.”
|650 reads | 17.03.2014|