On Iran, Syria, Ukraine, Libya and Iraq, Obama has stumbled from one crisis to another with seemingly limitless ineptitude
It started well enough; in his first major foreign policy speech after election, Obama addressed the Muslim world at Cairo University. The location was telling, a seat of learning in the most populous Arab country and US partner, with the subtext being that America was willing to work with the Arab and Muslim world in a new framework of learned understanding and respect, whilst maintaining current alliances.
In Europe, Obama saw little sense in keeping his legions twiddling their thumbs waiting for a Russian onslaught that was never going to come, and began the pivot towards Asia and the Pacific. Add the withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, with elections imminent and security forces armed and trained by the Uncle Sam, and things were looking good.
But the bubble burst, and a US body politic exhausted with the world opted for procrastination and half hearted responses, painfully epitomised by a President who didn’t know what he wanted, let alone how to get it.
In Iran and Ukraine, disputed elections and a brutal crackdown by authorities initially sparked the romanticism that too often clouds Western, and especially US strategic thinking. In both instances, the US backed the protesters just enough to get their hopes up and infuriate the government, but crucially not quite enough to any effect on the ground. Supporting activists in autocratic regimes immediately allows the governments there to paint the protesters as Western puppets and CIA agents, and the savagery of security forces was meted out with a ferocity usually reserved for spies and traitors.
When Russia unashamedly carved off a slice of Ukraine, it was breaking a bedrock of modern diplomacy; that Great Powers didn’t do territorial aggrandisement anymore. Putin was behaving like a 19th century empire, while Obama couldn’t respond in anything other than the mindset of Western post modernism, where power is passe and patriotism is a quaint acronism. For Russia, Ukraine is never going to be just another country; Moscow’s very identity as a world power is anchored in its domination of the lands between the the Black Sea and the Gulf of Finland, and by thinking it could alter Russian actions by watered down sanctions was both insulting and laughably insufficient.
The Arab Spring presented every world leader with a set of challenges nobody gets trained for, and for Obama the stakes were higher than most. Regional partners, critical to the War on Terror were being assailed by popular revolt and the possible seeds of democratic reform. Obama backed neither, and so ended up with neither. Libya is now less of a country and more a loose confederation of rival city states and militia. Gaddafi’s arsenals flooded the Shahal and gave fresh stimulus to insurgents in the region who had been waning. More importantly, Gaddafi had been coming in from the cold, working with the West and becoming a friend and partner. Yet the West dropped him like a hot potato the moment things got squiffy. This sent a ruinous message to likes of Burma and Azerbaijan, who had bee thinking of reforming and mellowing in return for Western friendship. They won’t make that mistake now, and the losers are the citizens of those countries who must now endure decades more girding poverty and oppression.
In Syria, Obama made a rod for his own back by foolishly imposing a red line he had no intention of making good on. Thinking that the threat of US power alone would scare Assad into eschewing chemical weapons, Obama allowed his bluff to be spectacularly called. Syria, along with the rest of America’s enemies rejoiced at the paper tiger.
By reaching out to Iran without consulting allies, Obama managed the seemingly impossible task of annoying Israel and Saudi Arabia simultaneously. Were that not enough, his ‘sort-of’ endorsement, ‘sort-of’ rebuke of the military coup in Egypt managed to incur the rancor of both pro democracy activists, and those within the Egyptian establishment who want to work with the US and maintain the status quo with Israel. Deft.
In Asia, the effects of US inaction has had less obvious, but longer lasting implications. America’s allies are no longer sure she’ll fight to protect them. This matters because in the absence of the US umbrella, countries like Japan and the Philippines must now take matters into their own hands and embark on a crash course of military procurement and a more brittle, less flexible defence postures. This in turn feeds in Chinese paranoia that the US seeks to encircle the Middle Kingdom via proxies, and so continues its own military build up and modernisation. The result is a quiet arms races in a region beset by rival territorial claims. Hardly an ideal opening to the Pacific Century.
Finally, in Iraq and Afghanistan Obama has made the same mistakes made in South Vietnam a generation ago. Desperate to extract itself from a quagmire, the US threw money and equipment at a government and military more interested in corruption and repression than on becoming an inclusive democratic beacon. With the facade of legitimate government in place and native armies looking splendid on paper and in the parade ground, the US walked away. Needless to say, sectarian and tribal differences that had never really gone away came to the fore, whilst insurgents tore through well armed but disillusioned troops.
It’s impossible to say whether John McCain or Mitt Romney would have had a better time of it in the White House. But the fact remains that the buck stops with the President, and Obama has presided over a crisis after crisis with no clear paradigm with which to assure allies or deter enemies. Obama refrained from the clumsy interventionist policies of Bush, but the world isn’t safer and it isn’t more stable.