As he faces the perhaps the most significant foreign policy crisis of his presidency, it has become abundantly clear that Barack Obama’s lack of attention to the nation’s overseas interests has seriously damaged America’s global position.
Is that too harsh an assessment of a president who likes to draw lines in the sand but is seldom willing to step over them? The 90-minute warning issued to Russia’s Vladimir Putin not to send troops to the Crimea when ignored produced an “OK, now what do we do?” moment, leaving Obama to scramble for a solution that would contain if not end the threat.
Perhaps the best assessment of the causes of the current mess comes from David J. Kramer, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Russia and Ukraine in the George W. Bush administration. Writing in the Washington Post on Sunday, Kramer said:
“Like his overall approach to foreign policy, Obama has been much too removed from the deteriorating situation in Ukraine the past few months and spoke out for the first time only 10 days ago after Ukrainian authorities used gruesome force against protesters in Kiev. Obama warned Ukrainian officials not to ‘step over the line,’ a phrase that lost meaning when he warned Assad not to cross a ‘red line’ at the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing about it.”
It is a disturbing pattern about this chief executive with the limited overseas knowledge that has plagued too many of his predecessors of late. Community organizing in Chicago and two years in the Senate doesn’t make good on-the-job training for dealing with the Putins of the world. Of course that has been the weakness with this president from the beginning — a lack of preparedness on not only overseas matters but domestic ones as well.
His almost obsessive focus on health-care reform during his first term has not served the national interest in maintaining world leadership. He has failed to assert his influence in Syria, watched benignly the crumbling of the Arab Spring, done little to change the Israeli/Palestinian picture. More important, it has taken most of his two terms to do what he promised to do quickly when campaigning in 2008 — end the Iraq and Afghanistan involvements that already have claimed too many American lives.
He doesn’t even seem to be able to get Hamid Karzai to sign off on the retention of a small security force in Afghanistan when the bulk of U.S. troops come home later this year.
What now can he do to pressure an end to the Russian incursion into Crimea? The task becomes difficult when as one analyst put it there is no longer a “big stick” available as an option. Saber rattling threats seem to me to be an impotent approach unless one is willing to start World War III. When the threat of military intervention is removed from the equation, sanctions and isolation from the international community become the only weapons.
Yet NATO with the United States in the lead can hardly stand still in this matter. In addition to banking sanctions, terminating all negotiations with Russia on promoting business or trade agreements, expelling Russia from the Group of Eight and cancelling the Sochi meeting, Kramer and others suggest NATO should call an emergency meeting to reassure allies that border Ukraine and to initiate mobilization of forces to be ready for any development.
There is absolutely no doubt that the next days will be the most difficult this administration has faced. Putin clearly has little or no respect for Obama as the long telephone conversation to try to resolve this made clear. Strengthening the Russian position, of course, is the huge number of ethnic Russians who occupy Crimea and consider themselves still to be a part of “the mother country.”
Whether or not Obama is up to meeting this challenge with the help of State Secretary John Kerry, who is being dispatched to Kiev, is problematic. Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Clinton, was given high marks for trying to keep the complexities of international affairs on an even keel and did a more than reasonable job until the Benghazi incident tarnished her reputation.
These are dangerous times.