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Mar 17 2014

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Weakness Comes Home to Roost in Ukraine

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The Results of Being Unprepared....

The Results of Being Unprepared….

Whether citizens or governments, no one likes to be ignored. It reflects a lack of standing. It implies weakness. It builds a sense of powerlessness.  Today, in the biggest crisis between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War, the United States is effectively being ignored.

On a tactical level, the Obama administration has brought this upon itself. Its high level responses to Russia’s de facto seizure of the Crimea have been anything but tempered and calibrated.

But you cannot truly understand the US position today without reflecting on the Obama foreign policy record over the last five years, and its profound hubris in action, where the seeds of our current distress were planted.

It is a truism that President Obama and his team are nearly without peer when it comes to winning domestic elections, as they’ve proven twice. But the very qualities that are essential to a campaign are antithetical to governing, and that is particularly true in foreign policy. This serious mismatch in skills is compounded by Team Obama’s deeply ingrained conceit that POTUS was no mere president, but a transformative global leader to whom the historic rules of the game did not apply.

Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo is a case in point. For Obama acolytes, it wasn’t simply a Middle East policy exposition by a new US president. Team Obama believed that the symbolism of a speech given by the first African-American president of the United States, a man with an Arabic middle name, whose happy childhood memories included the Muslim call to prayers when he lived in Indonesia, could supplant millennia of conflict and grievance between Muslim sects, Jews and Christians.

It was naïve and foolhardy.

The same holds true, for different reasons, with regard to US relations with Russia.

In the summer of 2009, the Obama administration seized upon US-Russian relations as a pivot to showcase the Bush administration’s heavy-handed mismanagement of the relationship, and to demonstrate the wisdom of President Obama’s new humility and constructive cooperation in foreign affairs.

But a worse choice for such largesse is hard to imagine. US-Russian relations were frosty in 2009, but for good reason. Vladimir Putin had just concluded is bloody and destructive invasion of Georgia the summer before. In addition the Russian political and military establishment was continuing their barely disguised policy of intimidation against eastern European members of NATO – the Czech Republic and Poland – who had agreed to host US manufactured anti-ballistic missile systems. This despite the fact that these systems were designed specifically to counter future rogue threats by the Iranians, and could easily be overwhelmed by Russia’s vastly larger military forces.

It didn’t matter.

Obama traded away the NATO missile bases – without bothering to inform the Poles or Czechs in advance – for a new strategic nuclear weapons reduction agreement with the Russians – an anachronistic bilateral deal of dubious value given the rise of China as a formidable nuclear weapons power.

Obama got his symbolic “reset” in US-Russian relations but it was a pyrrhic victory at best.   Putin scored a huge win in defeating a legitimate NATO military proposal by intimidation. He managed to sow discord in NATO while embarrassing NATO allies, sold out by the US,  and managed to constrain American strategic nuclear forces as well, all without having to offer any real concessions.

 Over the next four years, Team Obama engaged in a strategic retreat in the Middle East, effectively abandoning Iraq, executed a self-defeating strategy for Afghanistan, mishandled the Arab Spring, leading from behind in Libya and even managed a public squabble with the normally reticent Saudis over Syria policy. Never mind that in the post-Bush Middle East, Iran’s Shiite regime was on the march, developing nuclear weapons, taking advantage of the American vacuum in the Iraq, seeding discord in Afghanistan, actively building a Shia crescent from Iran through Syria to Lebanon and working to isolate America’s ally, Israel.

Domestically, the President’s priorities hobbled economic recovery and growth while his programs put the country more deeply in debt without any discernible return on investment or path to economic improvement. This new Obama paradigm was on display last month as the President called for a new $300 billion investment in infrastructure, while Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled an austerity budget that reduced the United States Army to pre-WWII force levels.

Though perhaps not apparent to Team Obama, the handwriting was on the wall for all else to see.  An economically hobbled superpower, drowning in debt, focused on reordering American domestic arrangements and expanding the role of government, suspicious of its inherited role internationally, determined to disengage overseas regardless of the consequences and allergic to American power, particularly military action in support of vital American interests.

In a situation like this, the only thing left on the table is a president’s resolve. But President Obama frittered this away as well.

In the heat of the 2012 campaign, POTUS drew a red line on the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons against its own people.  It was a terrific campaign move – Obama looking strong, determined and resolute. You remember the rest.  Al Qaeda on the run only days before Benghazi; snickering when Mitt Romney  called Russia our geopolitical foe…. But in retrospect,  the Syria comment wasn’t a considered foreign policy decision, it was a campaign decision. It filled a news cycle. It created a flattering image. It portrayed Obama as a strong leader. No one was thinking about Bashir Assad and what America would do if he crossed the line.

And cross he did. Not once, but twice, leaving the Obama administration dumbstruck and exposed, forcing the President into one of his monumental fits of denial as he said , against all evidence to the contrary, that he had never created such a red line.

The ensuing weeks of tumult regarding the exact nature of the US response to Syrian provocations represented a new nadir in US global leadership. There was no strategy or policy. Just a series of wildly gyrating and contradictory presidential statements that threatened serious military action while at the same time promising that those attacks would be designed to have negligible impact.

It was Vladimir Putin who bailed POTUS and John Kerry out of their incoherence. Seizing on a Kerry hypothetical, Putin brokered the deal for Syria to give up its chemical weapons cache, thus allowing the US to walk back its threats of force with a fig leaf of dignity.

But it was hardly a victory, or even strategically relevant.

Unlike POTUS or Kerry, Putin understood that the key to the Syrian crisis wasn’t WMD (which could be restocked at some point in the future, as necessary), but rather the staying power of Bashir Assad and his Baath party. Putin’s deal eliminated the American threat, cemented Assad’s power and Russia’s continued influence in the region, and enables the continued influx of Iranian fighters and weapons, which have decisively turned the tide against the Syrian rebels, who are all that stand between Assad’s Shia-aligned government and the majority Sunni Muslim population in Syria.

Team Obama and the US were out-played on an unheard of scale in modern diplomatic history in Syria last year. As it is again today with the Crimea crisis.

What initially looked like a cost-free victory for Western values over Putin-ism in the latest Ukrainian revolution has been turned on its head by the heavy-handed “realpolitik” of Putin in the Crimea. While Putin’s actions are patently illegal under international law, he has correctly judged the mettle of his international opponents – President Obama in particular.

In 1994, US prestige and consequence in Europe was such that America was a guarantor of the agreement by which the Ukrainians traded Soviet era nuclear missiles and warheads for Russian acknowledgement of the territorial integrity of Ukraine – including the Crimea.

Today, President Obama blusters and draws meaningless red lines while Russia proceeds with the de facto annexation of the Crimea – rendering America publicly impotent. That is dangerous not just for our relationship with Russia and Ukraine, but for other would-be trouble makers who are taking our measure and finding us wonting.

Nothing good has ever come from American weakness.

Do the President and his advisors understand?

You’ll have to wait on an answer – POTUS is meeting with the Palestinians today in the hopes of inking a framework agreement with the Israelis by late April. Of course, at no time in the last 15 years has there been a less inviting atmosphere for such a deal – but Team Obama presses on.

Futility and denial are the feedstock of foreign policy weakness.

And we have more than two more years to go before the end of the President’s term.

Dangerous times indeed.

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