international analysis and commentary

US foreign policy and Obama’s limits

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There is no denying that President Obama’s foreign policy is facing increasing difficulties. The long Middle Eastern arc of crisis poses the most daunting challenge: simultaneous violent conflicts are acute and immediate rather than dormant or intermittent as was often the case in the past. Russia too is upping the ante as it behaves as an anti-status quo power. 

The loosely coordinated and highly militarized extremist movements ranging from North Africa and the Sahel to Iraq have turned into a genuine regional threat. Given the dual nature of these movements (partly local actors competing for territorial control, partly splinters of an ideological network that explicitly targets the US and its citizens as well as others), Washington has officially begun to describe the challenge as also a national security threat to the US. This changes the equation of Obama’s foreign policy, just as the Russian problem was forcing a significant adjustment at a somewhat slower pace.

The immediate challenge
The immediate goal of the recent US strikes in Northern Iraq is essentially  to prevent a violent takeover by the “Islamic State”, as a precondition to then try and re-establish a certain balance of power (and possibly a more workable power sharing arrangement) among the Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish elements of the Iraqi puzzle. Such a direct exercise of American influence in the country obviously marks a radical shift away from Obama’s preferred strategy of (military and political) disengagement. It must be a choice based on a totally negative assessment of current trends, as it violates almost all of the Administration’s previous rules of behavior. It is true that the “footprint” is very light so far in terms of boots on the ground, but Washington is now back in the business of trying to affect political outcomes in Iraq directly and forcefully. Given his own strong reservations about the extensive use of military force and the recent US experience in the region, the President is walking a fine line and will tend to define success in rather limited terms even against the advice of his top uniformed officials.

Thus, the question then arises: why did the White House decide to take such a risk after having avoided the apparently more natural step of (quietly) finding a replacement for the Al-Maliki government while supporting the Kurds, and helping the more “moderate” armed groups in Syria before the full emergence of a strong jihadist actor there (and across the border with Iraq)? The simple answer probably lies in the very existence of a rather reliable partner on the ground, the Kurds, which was and still is not available in Syria. But there is more to it. A key assumption made by the Obama team was that each local crisis could be treated to some extent separately: thus, Iraq was a legacy that called for minimal US interference (the lesser the better), while Syria was an intractable regional proxy war where an uneasy balance of power would have to emerge without any major US involvement, and keeping all channels open with Iran (a real country with a real government) was actually the central goal looking at the longer term. Plus, the individual countries more directly affected by the Arab revolts were again separate political and security items, each with distinct local dynamics. The rapid rise of ISIS (and the recent episode of air strikes by two Arab states on Libyan territory) reminded everybody that there are indeed very worrisome trends of a truly regional nature.

America’s deeper problem
On this regional background, the short term calculations of the White House can be better understood in the context of a fundamental problem, that of America’s international credibility.

This is why, albeit in a different way, the challenge posed by Russia is equally important to the evolution of US policies.

It is important to recall what the original foreign policy plan of the Obama Administration looked like in 2008. It ran along the following lines: exit the Bush wars in an “honorable” manner (more quickly Iraq and more progressively Afghanistan); resist any temptation to intervene again militarily in the Greater Middle East region; engage Iran by exercising the art of patience to reduce the dangers of a nuclear arms race and create a new balance of power in the Gulf and beyond; cooperate with China whenever possible but contain its rise by “pivoting” to Asia and relying on the traditional regional allies plus possibly some new ones; use the reasonably reliable relationship with a quiet Russia to pursue some of these goals. The latter component of the plan was not as secondary as it might appear in hindsight, because an unreliable or even aggressive Russia turns Europe itself into a security problem and intensifies the sort of multipolar free riding in the Middle East that has already emerged extensively on the part of some Arab countries and Iran.

A key additional goal – in fact, the primary national security objective for Washington – has of course been, all along, to deny the option of another devastating terrorist attack against Americans, and here President Obama has been very successful indeed. Remember Osama bin Laden? This simple fact must not be forgotten as we assess the contradictory trends in US foreign and security policy.

Therefore, put in the wider perspective of what could have happened, the overall performance of Obama’s foreign policy may look less poor that it is usually portrayed, with the obvious exception of the Russia gamble at least since the Ukraine crisis exploded. At the same time, however, not only the behavior of Russia in the simmering Ukrainian crisis is a source of concern: in fact, on each of the items above there are mounting problems that might bring down the entire edifice – since Washington’s various goals are partly interrelated. The one issue that connects them all is the credibility of American commitments and “red lines” that others should not cross.

A good description of the recent course of US international policies is “populist”, in the basic sense that the President has been following public opinion rather than leading it. Thus, on balance restraint has clearly prevailed as the nation is inward-looking and war-weary. The drawback of such a course is that, despite being popular in the short term, it may turn out to be ineffective and costly (to the point of becoming unpopular, down the road) in the medium to long term. This is because inaction often carries hidden costs, and the loss of credibility certainly carries significant costs – which happens when promises are not kept and red lines are blurred or openly ignored. Viewed in this light, the paradox of the Administration’s foreign policy becomes less mysterious: it is still relatively popular with the voters but is lambasted by domestic opponents and may actually become the target of serious criticism even by some Democratic contenders to the White House in 2016.

What is getting lost in the arguments over the recent nearly simultaneous crises is that Obama’s instincts have mostly been correct, for example in not intervening in Syria and only playing a brief supporting role for the NATO intervention in Libya. Most Americans are still thankful for these choices of restraint, even despite the 2012 killing of the US Ambassador to Libya (in Benghazi) and the ongoing tragedy of the Syrian people. On Iran and its nuclear program, no tangible results have been achieved, and yet the jury is still out, so that the Administration can claim at least a partial success – again, in the “do no harm” mode. Note that the option of a possible (at least tacit) cooperation with Iran continues to surface with regard to Syria and Iraq.

If we look at Israel, this country’s regional role and the Palestinian conundrum invariably pose dilemmas for any US leader, but here Obama has been following in the footsteps of most of his predecessors in response to the latest Gaza war: support the old ally’s right to exploit its military supremacy over the Palestinians when under direct attack, while seeking to restrain Israel’s use of force; most of all, Washington is hoping that Tel Aviv’s reading of the regional balance of forces will ultimately prove correct, downsizing Hamas for the good of the much larger battle being waged across the Middle East. Like in the other intractable regional conflicts  that are now raging, the US just does not have a magic bullet – Obama can hardly be blamed for this.

What comes next
It is in this complicated context that we need to assess both the Russia challenge over Ukraine and the decision to use force in Iraq while setting the stage for a similar intervention in Syria.

Obama had placed a major bet on Russia’s constructive international role with his “reset” policy of 2008. The logic was that Moscow can be marginally useful in various contexts – given its role as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, its presence in the G8 and G20, its impact on energy markets and its prominence as an arms producer and exporter – and can become a very problematic troublemaker if it so chooses. Patient engagement was and remains an attractive choice, just as in the case of forging a new relationship with Iran. Meanwhile, restraint in the use of military force – which allows for drone operations and limited air strikes – remained a guiding principle.

The current dilemma in which the Administration finds itself  was made clearer by Putin’s moves in Ukraine and the battles won by the “Islamic State” across Iraq and Syria: without taking forceful action and raising the stakes, Washington now has insufficient credibility to tip the balance in its favor when needed. This has global implications for America’s international role.

The single most valuable asset that the White House needs right now is the tough resolve that often makes even symbolic military gestures, pre-deployments, or small scale surgical operations rather effective in making adversaries think twice. In this regard, the timing is particularly bad for Obama, because the domestic climate in which he is making some key decisions seems to favor the typically dangerous search for “do something” options, while certainly Ukraine, but also Iraq and Syria (despite the varying levels of violence in each case) are the kinds of crises in which no coercive instrument is very promising without a clear sense of direction and  some diplomatic ingenuity. In other words, these are truly situations in which no rash decision will be smart: Obama’s cautious instincts are again correct. However, at this stage he is much more aware of the costs of non-intervention that have accumulated and can no longer escape the central problem: Washington must recover some credibility as a full spectrum world power. It may be too late for this President to radically alter his foreign policy record, but a rebalancing process has certainly begun. We now know that the creation of an “Islamic State” in Iraq, with wild ambitions in the region, is a “red line” for Washington. It remains to be seen what upper limits Obama will set for America’s involvement. The powder keg across the Iraq-Syria border is the first testing ground.