President Obama is quite possibly the best US President on domestic affairs since Franklin Roosevelt. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson would be the other contenders for that honor (though it must be stated that some of Obama’s domestic successes have been due to a degree of Executive overreach something we can discuss another time). But his foreign policy record has been bumpy, perhaps even poor. Time and again the President has been more interested in taking a global view than a distinctly American one. In some cases that has seemed enlightened, but in others it has led directly to danger. But President Obama might be what the world needs most now as we continue in the most dangerous phase of global conflict since World War II – an adult.
The President’s failed policy in North Africa led to American armed intervention in the Libyan Civil War (without Congressional authorization) and allowing of Tunisia and Egypt to fall into the hands of Islamists. The President’s Afghanistan “surge” was a mistake and led to a more violent country. The drone strikes in Pakistan are a violation of that nation’s sovereignty. On Russia, I have time and again outlined five years of naively optimistic dealings with Vladimir Putin both on the part of the Obama Administration and by EU who have unwisely seen Russian energy exports as an alternative to dependence on Mideast oil. But those mistakes are now behind us and the President is pivoting into a position of strength and American global leadership for the common good.
Every President since Harry Truman has made multiple foreign policy errors. Some blunders like Iraq, Vietnam and the Beirut bombings are irretrievable. Others are correctable, and all of Obama’s mistakes fall in that later category. Obama has the maturity and grasp of geopolitics to turn this situation around and cement a legacy in his final two and half years in office.
The President has finally realized the danger coming from Russia and what that could possibly entail for the future of American interests globally. For too long the President wanted to view Russia and those nations in the Russian sphere as how he wished they would be not how they really were behaving. Beginning with the invasion of Crimea, our President has taken a harder line against Putin. This is similar to the way Jimmy Carter reacted to the Soviet Union after two years of naive dealing led to the invasion of Afghanistan.
President Obama’s meek approach to dealing with Putin enabled the Russian madman. But now with increased sanctions and the President finally being able to cajole our western allies led by the likes of incredibly weak and indecisive David Cameron, the Prime Minister of the UK into action the tables are turning. The problem though is that history teaches us that assumptions that sanctions change behavior have been made before and have generally been off base. From a historical standpoint most economic sanctions fail. The British led League of Nations embargo on Italy following the invasion of Ethiopia did virtually nothing to stop Mussolini’s aggression. International sanctions against Rhodesia and South Africa for racist policies probably played little role in the eventual downfall of those white minority governments and thirty-three years of US led sanctions against Iran did little to cripple the Iranian economy nor the pariah behavior of Tehran’s fundamentalist religious regime until some degree of cooperation from non-western countries was developed just a few years ago. The US economic sanctions/embargo against Cuba stand as the best example of a failed policy to try and impact political behavior by economic means. This is why more must be done, including Obama reversing his unwise decision to remove the missile defense shield from Poland. Russia has since the days of Catherine the Great sought to dominate its western neighbor using various justifications through the years for aggressive behavior.
The President must also use the NATO alliance to provide the real leadership to diffuse international crises. The United Nations has proven once again in this dispute that it is an absolutely useless organization with an excessively bloated bureaucracy when it comes to solving larger global political problems. The UN does good work on a number of humanitarian fronts, but when forced to curb Russian or Chinese aggression, or protect the liberal principles of democracy and religious freedom they routinely fail the test. The inaction the last four months on the situation in Ukraine proves once again how utterly useless the United Nations is as a global institution meant to maintain peace. The UN has essentially simply become a place where Russia and China are able to frustrate the global order and deem anything the United States or west does as “illegal” if it does not gain UN approval.
Now that the President has seen much like Bill Clinton did how useless the UN is, like President Clinton and Prime Minister he must rally NATO to strike at the heart of Russian interests. This was done in Kosovo when the UN said no to any western-backed effort to protect the Kosovar Muslims from the oppression brought forth by the Russian-backed Serbian dictatorship.
We must work against the interests of Russia’s other allies especially China and India who now under the potentially racist regime of
Narendra Modi posses a particular danger to American interests in South Asia and strikes fears into the hearts of India’s large Muslim minority. China is posing a real danger to our ally Japan and we must stand strong with the Japanese.
President Obama being the adult in the room has to reject the efforts of fringe elements in the Republican party to either consistently go to war (John McCain and Lindsey Graham) or to retreat from global leadership (Rand Paul). Now is the time for American leadership in a dangerous world. The President is a thinker, an intellectual and now that his naive views of Putin and Russia have been corrected, we must fully trust his instincts going forward. Secretary Kerry, who could go down as this nation’s best Secretary of State since Henry Kissenger and President Obama will need to weigh the danger coming from the pro-Russian alliance and make decisions on regional conflicts based on how it impacts the greater geopolitical game. It appears the United States is already moving in this direction.